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Choosing among all of those Martha Stewarts

With closing arguments underway at her trial, jurors have been given a range of images of the media entrepreneur.

March 02, 2004|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Her posture is perfect: head high, shoulders squared, never slouching in her chair during even the most tedious hours of testimony. She never has a bad hair day.

Yet the courtroom artists find Martha Stewart hard to draw. Her face, lively and beautiful on TV and in her magazine, emerges as taut and severe in their drawings. It isn't a question of poor draftsmanship. On trial, with her freedom and fortune on the line, Martha Stewart looks like a different person.

Today, Stewart's top lawyer and the lead prosecutor will paint their opposing portraits of the media entrepreneur and her actions between her now-notorious sale of ImClone Systems Inc. stock on Dec. 27, 2001, and her interview with federal investigators the following April.

Is Stewart the victim of a trophy-hunting U.S. Justice Department, or a shrewish multimillionaire who thinks the rules don't apply to her?

Defense lawyer Robert G. Morvillo and Assistant U.S. Atty. Karen Patton Seymour will draw on the same five weeks of testimony and documentary evidence to make their cases today to a racially mixed jury of eight women and four men. Even before those arguments begin, however, enough has been seen and said of Stewart in the courtroom to get a sense of how she might strike jurors as a defendant, a chief executive, a friend and an investor.

Stewart as defendant

In court, the former advertising model ("Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch") shows barely a touch of color in her wardrobe. She mainly confines herself to brown or dark gray pantsuits with equally somber tops and shoes. Her jewelry is subdued.

Stewart rarely smiles while court is in session, although she has permitted herself to chuckle along with the jury at times -- notably when her former stockbroker's aide, Douglas Faneuil, described a Stewart tirade over the "hold music" on the Merrill Lynch & Co. phone system. She didn't laugh when Faneuil described another Stewart outburst in which, he testified, she made a noise "like a lion roaring underwater."

During testimony, Stewart sometimes jots notes on a pad or murmurs to one of her lawyers. During breaks, she chats quietly with friends, relatives or members of her legal team. She never makes a broad gesture. She seldom attempts eye contact with jurors. She did not take the witness stand in her defense. The jury has never heard her voice.

In short, it would be hard to find a celebrity who has worked harder to fade into the background.

Stewart's defense is all about power, said Washington-based securities lawyer Howard Schiffman, who is not involved in the case. Morvillo argues that Stewart has been targeted by a powerful and vindictive federal government. He has twice mentioned the name of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to the jury, and the betting is that he will name him again in today's closing statement.

If that's the defense, Schiffman said, then you work against the image of Stewart as the short-tempered ruler of a mighty business empire. "Not vain. Not arrogant. You make her as small and as likable as you can."

As chief executive

A rule at the midtown Manhattan office of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. -- one of three MSLO offices -- was that callers dialing Stewart's direct number between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. should always reach a human voice. "We tried never to let that line go into voicemail," testified Ann E. Armstrong, Stewart's personal assistant.

The practical effect for Armstrong, whose job was to answer that phone, was that she had to be at her desk at least 12 hours a day, even though Stewart worked at the midtown office only two days a week. There was no designated backup. Armstrong said she eventually got a co-worker -- "as a favor" -- to staff the desk for the first 90 minutes each morning, "so I didn't have to start at 8 and end at 8."

Yet it was Armstrong, evidently feeling a twinge of loyalty, who broke down in tears on the stand recalling a modest gift -- a plum pudding -- that Stewart gave her and other employees for Christmas 2001.

Prosecutors made much of a $20,000 raise that Heidi DeLuca, Stewart's Westport, Conn.-based business manager, received in 2002. The salary bump was DeLuca's reward, they claimed, for corroborating the boss' story that Stewart had a prior agreement with her broker to sell ImClone if it fell to $60 a share.

Another way to look at it was that DeLuca, who juggled taxes, bank statements and bookkeeping for Stewart's corporate and personal affairs, had been egregiously underpaid in 2001, when she earned $72,000, and Stewart was trying to make amends.

Stewart, then, may have come across as a demanding and not always generous boss, but the government has struggled to get her employees to say anything against her. DeLuca, in the face of a withering cross-examination last week, clung to her contention that there had been an agreement to sell the stock if it fell to $60.

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