Why Was Martha Stewart Prosecuted?
Did the Justice Department single out Martha Stewart for prosecution because she's a celebrity? Or because she's a high profile supporter of Democrats? A news analysis in the New York Times poses these questions in the aftermath of Stewart's conviction.
As the Times points out, Stewart was essentially convicted of lying about a stock trade that saved her about $45,000. Small potatoes compared to the allegations made against Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski, Enron's Jeffrey Skilling or WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers, who reportedly "defrauded investors, stole tens of millions of dollars or drove their companies into the ground, or some combination of the three."
With so many sharks to catch, why go after a goldfish?
Ms. Stewart has long been a lightning rod because she has been politically active, female, powerful and rich, and perhaps because she has managed to straddle class lines in her dual roles as a celebrity and an adviser on taste.
Ms. Stewart's supporters have contended that the decision to prosecute her was motivated by the desire to take down a popular and very public female chief executive. Some say she became a target for prosecution because she supported members of the Democratic Party; others say she simply was not part of an old-boy network.
Mary Becker, a law professor at DePaul, says Stewart was "a wonderful target to show that the administration is serious about fraud. ... Lots of publicity doesn't disturb any of the old boys or anybody who made a significant amount of money."
Yet the case can be made that charges were brought quickly against Stewart because there was so little evidence against her to sift through, while the more complex charges of corporate fraud that prosecutors are beginning to bring take more time to prepare. Others argue that there is value in making an example of celebrities in light of the common observation that the affluent often escape justice while the powerless lose their liberty for less serious transgressions.
The easy (if naive) answer is that the criminal justice system should treat celebrities -- whether Martha Stewart or Rush Limbaugh -- in the same way it treats the poorest offender. That's what equal protection of the law is all about. By the same token, an accused's position on the political spectrum should not influence decisions about prosecution or sentencing.
The solution to inequality is not to make examples of celebrities by treating them more harshly. The solution is to improve the way the criminal justice system treats everyone else.
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