Dispatches From The Martha Stewart Trial

Martha’s Apology

Why “sorry” seems to be the hardest word

In the days since Martha Stewart added a startling entry to her otherwise amazing résumé—convicted felon—she has met with a probation officer and resigned as a director and officer of the company she founded and built. In a statement as emotional as her in-court demeanor was stoic, she has said she is “heartsick” about her legal situation and “deeply sorry for pain and difficulties it has caused our employees.” She has also thanked her colleagues for their “spirit, resiliency, and dedication.” What Stewart hasn’t done is apologize for committing four felonies, something that, in the days after the verdict, a parade of brand consultants, ex-cons, and crisis counselors publicly urged her to do as a first step toward redemption (and a lighter sentence).

Why hasn’t she apologized for committing the crimes? Perhaps because she’s bullheaded. Perhaps because she doesn’t want to torpedo her chance of appeal. And/or perhaps because, as she stated in the first version of the statement she released after the verdict, she continues to believe that she did nothing wrong. Although the evidence suggests that she probably did do something wrong, “probably” is a long way from “certainly.” (Having watched every day of the trial, I am more aware than ever of this; the allegations may had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but no one but Martha Stewart and Peter Bacanovic knows for sure what really happened—and even they disagree.)

One aspect of the verdict that remains unsettling, in fact, is that it doesn’t make sense that Stewart would have risked a trial if she had actually committed the crimes. Most accounts of the pre-indictment negotiations suggest that Stewart was offered the chance to plead guilty to one felony in exchange for likely (though not definitely) avoiding jail time. Most (credible) accounts also suggest that it was Stewart’s belief that she was not guilty, combined with the government’s insistence that she not only plead guilty but admit guilt, that persuaded her to take her chances at trial. With the benefit of hindsight, this decision seems arrogant and stupid: All she had to do was say “I did it,” and she could have avoided a year of intense stress and, probably, a year of jail. My sense, however, is that Stewart made this choice not out of recklessness or pride but a desire to remain true to herself. When the world thinks you are guilty, and you alone know (or at least believe) that you aren’t, all you have left is your integrity, and, in most cases, this is not worth trading away.

If Stewart had settled last June—and if she apologized now—she would presumably have had to say things she thought weren’t true, the type of things that Enron CFO Andy Fastow said recently in his guilty plea:

I and other members of Enron’s senior management fraudulently manipulated Enron’s publicly reported financial results. Our purpose was to mislead investors and others about the true financial position of Enron and, consequently, to inflate artificially the price of Enron’s stock. … I also engaged in schemes to enrich myself and others at the expense of Enron’s shareholders. … I make this statement knowingly and voluntarily and because I am in fact guilty of the crimes charged.

If you are, in fact, guilty of the crimes charged—as Fastow appears to have been—pleading guilty is the sensible way out. You find a way to get over your pride and denial, you cut the best deal possible, and you come clean, saving yourself, your family, and your colleagues years of tension and uncertainty. If you believe you aren’t guilty, however, and if you’re considering a guilty plea because it’s the most rational (and least horrifying) course of action under the circumstances, then being forced to say “I am pleading guilty because I am guilty” is, for a certain type of person, a deal-killer. And it remains a deal-killer even when a simple “I’m sorry I did it” might re-ingratiate you with millions of people—allowing them to see you in a way they have never seen you, as a human being who, like everyone else, makes mistakes—and also allow you to spend a few more months of your life out of a federal penitentiary and in the garden (and TV studio) at Turkey Hill.

So Stewart hasn’t apologized for committing the crimes, and if she doesn’t buckle to public pressure, she probably never will. What she has done is apologize, indirectly, for putting her employees through hell. She has also done what many have said it is hard for her to do—given others credit for her success, thanked them for helping build a “very special company.” And in so doing, she has revealed a part of herself that was, perhaps, missing when she decided not to take the plea last summer, a part that is admirable in a way that her other talents and accomplishments are not. This part of Martha Stewart is not perpetually “curt and annoyed” (two favorite descriptors at the trial) but a team player and a leader, someone who makes decisions not because they are best for No. 1 but because they are best for those she is responsible for and to. This part of Martha Stewart is the part that, jail or no jail, will mean the difference between her having lived an impressive life and a great one.

If Stewart had accessed this part of herself last summer, it might have persuaded her to forgo principle and take the bullet, thus sparing her team eight months of purgatory. It might have. (Perhaps, ethically or arrogantly, she just felt she couldn’t cave to pressure, no matter the cost.) In any case, now that she’s been convicted, and now that she’s expressed sorrow and dismay at the havoc her situation has wreaked, she has probably apologized for everything she can without selling out her view of the truth. And if this is the case, this is all she should ever apologize for. Whatever she did, Stewart has paid an enormous price: half a billion dollars, her job, her titles, her company, her reputation, and, likely, about five years of her life. We love confessions, we love pleas for forgiveness, and we love it when those who have ascended to the stratosphere are returned, jarringly, to Earth, but we also love (or at least admire) those who stand on principle, even when doing so means taking the hard way out. And, in this case, the hard way out—at least in terms of public opinion—may be for Stewart to not apologize.