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January 14, 2005 - The Wall Street Journal (US)

Martha Stewart Worries About 'Depressed' Inmates

By Laurie P. Cohen

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Blakely News Archive

Martha Stewart, one of the nation's most famous felons, has assumed a new role: prisoner advocate.

In an e-mail to a Wall Street Journal reporter, Ms. Stewart says she is worried that striking down federal sentencing guidelines, which the Supreme Court did Wednesday in a landmark ruling, could "depress" some of her fellow inmates at the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, W.Va.

In the Jan. 5 e-mail, Ms. Stewart, convicted in federal court in March 2004 for lying about a stock sale, wrote that what worried her most about a ruling shooting down the sentencing system "is the hope that the Supreme Court has raised in the minds of so many incarcerated women and men that their sentences will be automatically shortened if the court throws out the guidelines."

She added: "It is astonishing how high hopes are in West Virginia, and I fear that a negative result will cause a severe depression."

The High Court, in twin rulings Wednesday, limited the cases that could be reconsidered under the new rules to those currently under appeal or those in which a challenge under the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial previously was raised. That means the overwhelming majority of the nation's 180,000 federal prisoners -- including the 1,050 female inmates at Alderson -- will have no chance of being resentenced.

The rulings could affect Ms. Stewart, who is appealing her conviction. She was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum to five months in prison and five months house arrest, the lowest possible sentence under the now-unconstitutional federal sentencing guidelines.

However, Ms. Stewart, the founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., elected to begin serving her prison sentence on Oct. 8 to "reclaim my life and the quality of life for all those related to me," she said at a news conference in September. She is scheduled to be released March 6.

Ms. Stewart could ask to be resentenced in the wake of the court decision. But with less than two months left in her prison term, it seems unlikely, because an appeals court would have to send her case back to a lower court.

David Chesnoff, a Las Vegas lawyer representing Ms. Stewart in her appeal, said her legal team believes that the dual Supreme Court rulings "impact Martha, and we're having discussions with her to evaluate her options." Mr. Chesnoff declined to elaborate.

But Manhattan U.S. Attorney David Kelley, whose office prosecuted Ms. Stewart, said: "The judge sentenced Martha Stewart well within the guidelines range and a reading of the Supreme Court opinion would suggest that sentence was clearly a reasonable sentence."

Since entering prison after her conviction for lying about why she unloaded shares of ImClone Systems Inc. stock before the price dropped in 2001, Ms. Stewart has publicly called for sentencing reform.

In an open letter posted on her Web site in December, Ms. Stewart urged people to "think about these women -- to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking." She wrote that in prison, there is "no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate."

In her e-mail to a reporter, Ms. Stewart said many of Alderson's inmates are there for long periods of time, many "unfairly or unwisely because of the guidelines, enhancements and conspiracies."

The issue that triggered Wednesday's High Court ruling was the guidelines' allowance for judges to boost sentences based on so-called enhancements, factors that weren't admitted to by defendants or ruled on by juries. The Supreme Court said this issue violated defendants' Sixth Amendment rights to jury trials.

"As you can imagine," Ms. Stewart wrote in her e-mail, "when one gets to talk to these women, most first offenders, and many perfectly nice 'neighbors next door,' it is mind boggling to understand that they have four, six and fifteen years to serve away from family, friends, jobs and homes. It is indeed pitiable."

Ms. Stewart, who had never spoken out about treatment of prisoners before entering prison, is far from the first high-profile federal inmate to speak out on the issue. Others have included Charles W. Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, convicted on Watergate-related charges, and Jean Harris, a former schoolteacher who murdered her high-society lover, Scarsdale Diet book author Herman Tarnower in 1980.

After leaving prison, Mr. Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976, which has since become the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Ms. Harris, granted clemency in 1992, founded an organization that continues to support and educate prisoners' children.

"Martha Stewart couldn't walk into a garden without doing a little weeding," Ms. Harris said in a recent interview. "And there's a lot of weeding to do in those prisons."

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