SHELTER FROM THE STORM?

Chiara Edmands strolled the pastel aisles of Kmart in Manhattan last week, filling her shopping cart with Martha Stewart kitchenware. She knows the domestic diva was just convicted of four felonies at the federal courthouse a few blocks away. No matter. Edmands just hopes Stewart's stylish, affordable housewares don't disappear. "I don't agree with what she's done," Edmands says as she selects a Martha chopping block, "but as long as she's around, I'll still buy."

If Martha has it her way, she isn't going anywhere. With the guilty verdicts still ringing in her ears, Stewart is hard at work concocting a plan to stay out of jail. Sure, it's a long shot, but she's determined not to go down without a fight. After visiting the probation office last Monday (to submit a urine sample, among other things), Stewart sped off to persuade her board of directors not to abandon her. She insisted the $250 million company she created from scratch still needs her as a "creative force." After all, her new garden line is flying off the shelves at Kmart, and her Turkey Hill furniture is selling briskly. (Never mind that CBS dumped her TV show and advertisers are fleeing her magazine.) Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia directors are expected to acquiesce, allowing her to remain in an unspecified creative role, though without her board seat. "Martha is the founder and the largest shareholder," says a person close to the company. "That's why they've been very considerate and careful about whatever decisions we make."

Martha's hoping that holding on to her job will help her stay out of jail. At her June 17 sentencing hearing, she will argue that the jobs of her 550 employees depend on her remaining a free woman, say sources close to her case. But legal experts predict the gambit will fail. "The idea that no one other than Martha Stewart can pick out matching place mats seems a stretch," says New York University law professor Harry First. Stewart is facing 15 to 21 months, says First. And the best way to reduce that is to admit guilt--which she hasn't done yet.

Martha faces even longer odds getting her convictions tossed, though that's not stopping her from trying. Winning an appeal requires proof that the judge made serious errors or the jury's decision was unsupported by the evidence. But most of the judge's rulings actually went Martha's way. And appeals courts don't overturn jury verdicts unless there's scant evidence of guilt. With Stewart's secretary and a friend testifying against her, "there's substantial facts in the record to support the jury," says Duke law professor James Cox.

Martha already missed her best chance to stay out of the federal pen. That came a year ago, when the Feds offered her a deal to cop to one felony count of lying in exchange for no jail time. Legal observers suspect Stewart rejected the offer herself, though no one in her camp will comment. Her ace white-collar-criminal attorney, Robert Morvillo, is renowned for cutting deals just like that one to keep his high-profile clients out of jail and out of a courtroom. So legal experts say it's unlikely he recommended that Martha turn it down. "This is somebody who did not get straight A's for listening to her lawyer," says Cox.

Stewart seems to hear only the voices of her admirers as she makes her desperate bid to remain free. "I just want to thank everyone for their support," she proclaimed as she emerged from her probation meeting Monday. Back at her company, though, the hallways are buzzing with dark whispers about the fall of the house of Martha. Says one employee: "No one knows if their job is still going to be there in a couple months." As Martha makes her last stand, she's hellbent on making sure that not only will those jobs be there, but she will be, too.

SHELTER FROM THE STORM? | News
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