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Martha Stewart fans could be foes as jurors

Martha Stewart's fans may decorate their homes with tips from her lifestyle magazine and cook her recipes, but that devotion is no guarantee they would acquit the trendsetter if picked to serve on her jury.
Jurors who are fans of Martha Stewart's products and shows won't necessarily be her allies in court, experts say.Louis Lanzano / AP file
/ Source: Reuters

Martha Stewart's fans may decorate their homes with tips from her lifestyle magazine and cook her recipes, but that devotion is no guarantee they would acquit the trendsetter if picked to serve on her jury.

So say legal consultants who, as jury selection for the Stewart trial got under way, predict that jurors' attitudes, personal experiences and values will play a much greater role in Stewart's fate than gender, profession or economic background.

"You might think a woman who enjoys Martha Stewart's products might be favorable, but you can't bank on it. Demographics don't make a material difference in this type of case," said Philip Anthony, chief executive of Los Angeles-based trial consulting firm Bowne DecisionQuest.

Karen Jo Koonan, senior trial consultant at the National Jury Project of Oakland, California, agreed. She said some might think a successful businesswoman would be an ideal juror for Stewart, but that view could easily backfire.

"One professional woman might feel that women are picked on in the business world, while another might believe 'I behave differently than that,"' she said.

Stewart, who became a household name as she built up a media and lifestyle empire, is charged with crimes stemming from her 2001 sale of almost 4,000 shares of ImClone Systems Inc. for $227,000. Prosecutors say she made the trade based on an inside tip that negative news about the company was imminent. Stewart denies wrongdoing.

Jury selection began on Tuesday when hundreds of potential jurors arrived at a federal courthouse to answer questionnaires. Oral questioning of potential jurors is set to begin Jan. 20 with opening statements in the trial expected at the end of the month.

Beware stereotypes
Several prominent consultants who advise lawyers on jury selection said that demographics and stereotypes of potential panelists may have little bearing in this case because of some unique elements -- among them that Stewart is not actually charged with insider trading.

Instead, she faces trial for obstruction of justice and securities fraud based on accusations that she lied to regulators and the public about her trading.

Because the core crime is inferred, consultants say how jurors judge Stewart will greatly depend on how they view the world, not whether they like her Kmart sheets or recipes.

In particular, they agreed that defense lawyers should try to eliminate potential jurors who are rigid in their beliefs.

Jeffrey Frederick, director of Jury Research for the National Legal Research Group in Charlottesville, Virgina, said an ideal juror for prosecutors will be a person who thinks in "black and white terms" and who would convict a defendant for "violating the letter of the law" regardless of the situation.

"For those types, there's not a great distinction," agreed Bowne DecisionQuest's Anthony.

Koonan said she would also advise the defense to eliminate potential jurors who have attitudes that suggest they think "you create your own problems in this world" and so might be predisposed to thinking she brought her woes upon herself rather than being victimized for being a celebrity.

Another dangerous type of juror for Stewart is one who believes "no one ever did anything for me...why should she get special treatment," added Anthony.

He said that jurors who might be in her camp would be those who faced adversity in their own lives and succeeded. "They've persevered and done well. Subconsciously they believe, She did what I did and she's a hero to me."

The consultants said the defense team should also seek jurors who feel they have been singled out for mistreatment or know anyone who was wrongfully accused of a crime.

Frederick said that although Stewart's demeanor often generates negative publicity, her celebrity may work in her favor. He said some jurors may see it as the reason for her prosecution because "other people who have committed greater wrongdoing are not facing the same type of situation."