Martha Stewart: She’ll be back
By Burton S. Katz/Retired L.A. Superior Court Judge
I thought for a moment I was watching a Wall Street Wig tell us that the earnings had exceeded the street estimates, as ticker tapes scrolled along the bottom of my TV monitor telling me that Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia had soared 35 percent after Stewart was sentenced. Yah gotta admire Martha Stewart’s spirit, if not her behavior. She told the judge at the sentencing that “today is a shameful day…what was a small personal matter…became over the last two years an almost fatal circus event of unprecedented proportions.”
The judge gave an exceptionally lenient sentence of five months in federal custody to be served at a minimum-security work camp and five months of home confinement on an old farm Stewart is restoring near Ralph Lauren and billionaire George Soros. She also was placed on two years probation and fined $30,000. However, the sentence will be stayed pending her appeal.
Without missing a beat, Stewart told the hushed crowd outside the courthouse she would be back. Stewart then made a pitch, worthy of any good CEO, to the people to support her company and its products. It was a very good day for Stewart and her company. She remains defiant and indignant over the way she perceives she was mistreated over this “personal matter” of alleged insider trading-for which she was not convicted-and conspiracy to alter evidence and lying to prosecutors-for which she was convicted.
There are several perspectives to celebrity justice. One is that celebrities get a better break than you or I. Another is that they are hounded by the prosecution to make an example out of them for the “betterment” of justice. And still another is that this is a case that will make the career of an ambitious prosecutor or judge. There is a little truth in all of the above. I love H.L. Mencken’s cynical observation that a “prosecutor, aspiring to higher office, will assault and destroy a man with the ease and grace worthy of a congressman scuttling his way across the Potomac to Washington.” A little harsh, perhaps, but the point is that the prosecutor always has “celebrity” on his mind. If he doesn’t, then he’s an idiot, because he has failed to understand the potential dynamics of the case.
As a former prosecutor, I know what it is to handle high-profile cases; and I’d be lying if I told you I never considered what effect it might have on my career. The difficult thing for a prosecutor to do is to differentiate between what the case demands and what the prosecutor needs to do to further his career. Sometimes the line is too narrow to honestly distinguish between the former and the latter.
If the prosecutor honestly evaluates the case as weak or relatively insignificant-given the seriousness of other crimes and the limited resources to prosecute all of them-and makes the decision to accept a plea to a lesser charge or not to even prosecute, the public will crucify him with accusations of compromising justice and pandering to an important public figure. If, on the other hand, the prosecutor decides to go forward with the case, no matter how weak it is (especially where you or I would not be prosecuted), because he is ambitious or fearful that the public will perceive weakness and corruption, justice has been subverted.
The same dichotomy exists with the sentencing process. The judge in this case, after the millions of dollars spent on pursuing Martha Stewart while Ken Lay of Enron infamy has yet to be prosecuted, has to deal with public perception and with what is fair and just. Public perception is that the rich and famous don’t go to prison for their crimes. The judge has to deal with the fact that Martha Stewart has never apologized for her conduct, nor expressed remorse for her deeds other than to acknowledge that the situation caused 200 employees of her company to lose their jobs. For that she is deeply sorry. She even remained defiant during her interview with Barbara Walters following her sentencing.
But the judge was right in her sentence. Stewart has paid a far greater price than you or I would have paid. She has lost hundreds of millions; she has been stripped of her CEO status and vilified in the press for nearly two years. And the doyen of domesticity will be incarcerated and left with a felony rap sheet at 62 years of age. Not something to talk about with your grandchildren. Perhaps Martha just made us feel too klutzy and incompetent in our own homes and we had to bring her down. For me, I’m glad she’ll be back sooner than later.