Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764

Zev Chafets

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Martha's doing us a service | Martha Stewart is calling on her friends to write testimonial letters to Judge Miriam Cedarbaum. She asks them to "please include your opinion of my character, my work ethic, my integrity and my probity."

I'm not one of Stewart's friends. We've never met. But I do have an opinion of her character, based on a personal encounter once removed.

A Martha Stewart executive lives in my town. Not long ago, her daughter turned 13. Stewart threw the girl a bat mitzvah party at one of her mansions.

Among the guests was a friend's daughter. Naturally I was curious, so I did what any red-blooded gossipmonger would do: I grilled the kid. Had Martha actually been at the party?

"You mean the lady who owns the house? Sure. She talked to me for a long time." "About what?"

Shrug. "School, what I like to do, things like that. She talked to all the girls. She was really nice."

This is a small anecdote, but Stewart's negative public image is made of small anecdotes - the gardener she mistreated, the neighbor she quarreled with, the fights with her ex-husband, the hollering at her staff. Doubtless she can be imperious and difficult; self-made moguls tend to be. But she also has time for little girls.

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I'm sure Cedarbaum will get many letters attesting to Stewart's character. I'm equally sure they won't matter. Martha Stewart is heading to prison. Federal rules call for her to serve 10 to 16 months.

Locking Stewart up is crazy. Her only crime was lying to federal investigators. That's wrong, but hey - the feds come around asking you questions, you might panic and fib, too. Especially if you felt (correctly) that you were getting set up to serve as an example of law-and-order prosecution.

Even if Cedarbaum agrees, she can't do anything about it. "Extraordinary circumstances" would permit her to give Stewart less than the guidelines require, but there are no such circumstances. Martha's good deeds and good character don't count. In fact, the rules specifically bar judges from considering a defendant's previous contributions to society.

Another means of sentence reduction is for the defendant to take "personal responsibility." But that usually applies only to people who admit their guilt. Stewart could have copped a plea. Instead she forced government to go to the trouble of convicting her. Post-trial contrition, even if it is genuine, won't keep her out of jail.

In a readers poll conducted by the New York Daily News, many people suggested that Stewart should do community service. After all, she actually has skills to offer. But under the current federal rules, which have been considerably tightened by the Bush administration, less restrictive confinement - including community service - is no longer a substitute for jail time.

Still, the Stewart case does provide an unintended service to the community. It shows how absurdly rigid the federal sentencing guidelines are. A lot of people in prison don't need to be there. The Stewart case calls attention to the problem in a dramatic way. And, while it may not be much comfort to Martha, that is potentially a good thing.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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