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Stewart jury's vote can't sway fan's verdict

Defending her online and on talk shows, a devotee of the mogul wins a share of celebrity himself. He also moves some merchandise.

March 08, 2004|Nick Charles | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — In the early days of the Martha Stewart trial, John Small would stand outside the Thurgood Marshall courthouse in downtown Manhattan, in subzero weather, sporting a chef's hat, an apron, a broad smile and a sign that read, "Save Martha! If her stock sale was legit, you must acquit!"

As proceedings progressed, Small would arrive early, line up for a place in the courtroom and take copious notes. Each day he would update the website Save, which he engineered over 18 months ago to address the miscarriage of justice he was convinced was transpiring. On Friday, as Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum repeated the word "guilty" four times after the jury foreman delivered the verdict, Small was beside himself.

"I was in total shock and disbelief," said Small. "I thought we had at least one juror, the guy in the front row who carried a Prada bag everyday. I will never try to read a jury again."

The jury found the decorating diva guilty of lying about dumping stock in 2001. But as Stewart ponders a prison stretch, watches her empire unravel and the stock price of her own company plummet, Small, her self-designated champion, sees his own celebrity crest. Since the verdict, he has been making the talk-show rounds and claims that the website has gotten close to 30 million hits. "I feel like Superman without a cape," said Small over the weekend. "I'm trying to save damsels in distress, but I'm not getting enough help."

What is interesting about this Lancelot is he has never met his Guinevere, though he stands ready to combat all who call her character into question. "Men hate her," said Small, 42, "and women are jealous of her because she is a perfectionist."

On the website, Small posted a call to arms: "Martha will appeal, and we hope her fans will stand up to the tempest in a [C]uisinart which has now exploded, causing enormous collateral damage to her company and its shareholders. Hundreds of jobs are at stake, and Martha's life is on the line." The hyperbole continued: "Martha Stewart was convicted for being Martha Stewart. This trial was death by a thousand paper cuts as her entire lifestyle was put on trial."

Small, a marketing consultant who ran a similar unsolicited campaign on behalf of Rosie O'Donnell last year, vowed to orchestrate a five-step program that would "Save Martha." But one of Small's first strategies backfired. On Friday night he opened a chat room in hopes of marshaling the Martha troops. There were sympathizers such as Guest3303, who opined, "I'm worried that Martha will commit suicide if sentenced to prison."

But such emotions were soon drowning in a virtual cesspool of derision and divisiveness. Small admitted that the chat room was hijacked by forces unsympathetic to his lady fair. "People need to see the ridiculous kind of vitriol that people in our society feel for people like Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton," added Small. "As painful as it is, it's helping to solidify the message."

While only the cynical would question Small's motives, he admits his extenuation for Stewart is how he currently ekes out a living. "We had more traffic and sold more merchandise than ever," he said Saturday. At the Save Martha online store, one can purchase a retro white T-shirt ($19.99), boxer shorts ($15.99), a stainless steel travel mug ($16.99), a retro baseball hat ($17.99), etc., all emblazoned with the slogan "Save Martha."

Even Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam have been conscripted to save Martha, on T-shirts and mugs. Small says a company produces the items and he gets a cut from sales.

Small's website isn't the only one to support celebrities under fire; there are sites supporting ex-NBA star Jayson Williams, on trial for allegedly shooting his driver, and one to rescue Disney from its boardroom battle.

Small said he hopes Stewart's appeal is successful, but while he's "hoping for the best," he's "planning for the worst." If worst comes to worst, Small plans to petition President Bush and whoever may be in the White House after the November election, for a pardon for Stewart.

"Chivalry is not dead," said Small, who has already registered the domains, SaveHillary .com and, in anticipation of future legal controversies. "I think they could be targets because they're strong women. The Taliban puts burkas on women; we just put them on the front of the tabloids. I'm just a feminist trapped in a man's body."

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