By Patricia O'Connell
Finally, it's over: Martha Stewart's trial for conspiracy, lying, and obstruction of justice. The goddess of good things is now a convicted felon, facing 20 years of prison time. And I confess to being shocked -- not by the verdict, but by people's reaction to it. I'm also stunned that there are those who still say that Stewart's actions didn't warrant a trial. Why are folks having such a hard time with the notion that lying to authorities is a crime, that obstructing justice is something you can -- and should -- go to jail for? (See BW Online, 3/9/04, "The System Served Martha an Injustice".)
A common refrain -- before, during, and after the trial: "This wasn't a case for criminal court." Where else ought crimes to be prosecuted? In the press, in the court of public opinion? True, celebrities of Stewart's caliber find their lives and legal travails played out in the media, with viewers as the jury. But I don't buy the argument that for the famous, public humiliation is punishment enough.
Yes, it must be embarrassing to have your foibles so nakedly exposed. Yet Stewart wasn't exactly camera-shy, nor publicity-averse, when sitting on top of the world.
TRUTH ABOVE ALL.
Among the other complaints espoused by the "Poor Martha was being picked on because she is a woman" camp: that the whole matter was over a small -- to Stewart, at least -- amount of money, and that because she was never charged with insider trading, the feds had no right to bring charges against her related to noncriminal actions.
Repeat after me: The case wasn't about money or insider trading. It was about lying. What Stewart lied about isn't important: It's who she did it to, and the circumstances under which she did it. She lied to the authorities, and she broke the law when she did it (see BW Online, 3/9/04, "Martha Cooked Her Own Goose").
Jurors who found Stewart -- and her co-defendant, broker Peter Bacanovic -- guilty say it was the testimony of her assistant, Anne Armstrong, and her (former?) best friend, Mariana Pasternak, that convinced them. These revelations had pundits and the public alike shaking their heads over the cruel irony of Martha having been done in by two people who should have been on her side. "With friends like that," uttered one TV talking head.
What were Armstrong and Pasternak supposed to do -- lie? They had no choice but to tell the truth, or they could have faced the same sort of charges Stewart did. Should they be blamed for cooperating with the authorities? They clearly understood what Stewart -- whose lawyer claimed she was "too smart" to have done what she was accused of -- didn't: That lying and impeding the progress of an investigation is a bad thing.
No, the real irony is not that Martha was done in by her former assistant and her close pal. It's that she was done in by two people whose did the exact opposite of what she herself had done. Armstrong and Pasternak were bound by a loyalty greater than what they felt for, or owed, Stewart: to the truth.
Yes, there are plenty of stupid laws on the books. It took the Supreme Court to strike down the statutes against sodomy, for example, and there are still arcane state laws that forbid a man to kiss his wife on Sunday. A law that makes it a crime for people to lie to investigators isn't one of these, however. What hope would there be for the justice system if it weren't a crime? How could authorities ever get to the bottom of anything if obstructing justice were no big deal?
You can't help but think that the reason Stewart didn't testify is that she finally figured out -- some 20 months too late -- that lying to investigators is something one shouldn't do. Too bad she didn't figure that out a long time ago. Certainly, there are crimes more heinous than lying and obstructing justice. But there are no crimes as potentially damaging to the legal process. Stewart's conviction is not a perversion of justice, but a preservation of it.
O'Connell is assistant news editor for Business Week Online.
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht