Pardon us if we don’t buy into the “somebody-rich-and-famous-is-going-to-jail-tra-la” schadenfreude or the pious claptrap about how this verdict sends a message that nobody is above the law.
It’s not so much that the Martha Stewart conviction was a travesty — given the information the jury had to work with, one can understand the decision.
In fact, the Martha Stewart prosecution was a travesty.
There is little question, in our minds, that this particular set of facts would not have led to prosecution if the person in question had not been Martha Stewart, the all-too-successful domestic diva so many Americans loved to hate or felt ambivalent about. But the feds as of early last year had made little progress legally regarding Enron, Tyco, Adelphia, WorldCom and other corporate scandals that really did harm “the little people.” Public perception persisted that the big guys could get away.
Enter Martha Stewart. Someone rich, someone widely known and someone who was not a sympathetic figure. Yes, the mighty, even the perfect, could fall. Martha made a good scapegoat; she was just what prosecutors needed.
UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge put it succinctly on his Web log: “1) The securities fraud count was bogus. The judge agreed and threw that one out. 2) The obstruction and false statement (charges) were proper in a hypertechnical sense, but should not have been brought as a matter of prosecutorial discretion.”
This is not to say that Martha Stewart did not do uncharacteristically stupid and dishonest things along the way. After questions were raised about her sale of ImClone stock on Dec. 27, 2001, she seems to have concocted a clumsy cover story and told untruths to federal investigators instead of simply asserting that what she had done — as the government tacitly admitted — was not illegal.
The government did not charge Martha Stewart with insider trading for the simple reason that it could not have made the charge stick. When she became defensive and told dubious tales, however, instead of giving her a lecture about lying to investigators and moving on, they decided to bring charges.
It is true there are laws against lying to a government investigator, although it doesn’t go both ways. An investigator may lie repeatedly to a suspect with no repercussions; it’s considered an acceptable interrogation technique. But if there is no underlying crime that can be proved, prosecutors fairly routinely let the matter of a suspect’s lying drop.
In this case, prosecutors initially tried to come up with something more substantive. They charged that Martha Stewart’s remarks to stockholders at an industry convention, boilerplate protestations of innocence that she had already made in other venues, constituted an illegal attempt to manipulate the price of her own stock.
If that one had stuck, it could have prevented any corporate officer charged with anything from speaking in his or her own defense — depriving stockholders of relevant information, the opposite of what the securities laws are ostensibly designed to do. Fortunately, Judge Miriam Cederbaum threw that one out.
So the jury was left with the charges of lying to federal prosecutors and fairly comprehensive (though not entirely bulletproof) circumstantial evidence that Stewart had violated these laws. Its decision to convict was perhaps surprising, but not entirely unjustifiable.
It makes one yearn for the day when juries will be fully informed of the fact that they can judge not only guilt or innocence, but whether the law in question has been applied properly — in the interest of justice rather than publicity or career advancement — in the case before them. Then perhaps we will see more justice done.
We hope Judge Cederbaum sentences properly — perhaps to one day in jail.
Sometimes prosecutors need to get a message about bringing questionable charges just because they can.