Originally created 01/12/04

In Stewart case, two powerhouse lawyers share the stage



NEW YORK -- The trial of Martha Stewart will feature a showdown between two powerhouses of business crime litigation: a prosecutor who has helped lead the government's unprecedented attack on securities fraud and a defense lawyer who literally wrote the book on white-collar crime.

When the trial begins Jan. 20, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Patton Seymour and defense lawyer Robert Morvillo will provide jurors with polar-opposite portrayals of Stewart's decision to sell stock in ImClone Systems shortly before a negative government report sent its price plummeting.

Seymour, 42, is dusting off courtroom prosecuting skills unused since her first, six-year stint as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan ended in 1996. During that tenure, she won convictions against a former AT&T Corp. officer and an aide to junk bond king Michael Milken.

The Big Springs, Texas-born litigator returned in February 2002 to lead a staff of 175 lawyers in the office's criminal division - equipped with a friendly demeanor that colleagues say can change in an instant in the heat of a courtroom.

That was apparent the first time Seymour entered court to face Stewart, smiling and nodding at the defendant before assuming a stone-sober demeanor alongside fellow prosecutors Michael Schachter and William Burck.

"She's certainly tough," said Anthony DiSarro, a securities attorney who once worked with Seymour at the Manhattan law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. "Aside from her accent which sometimes comes out, there's really no trace of Southern delicacy that I observe in her."

Seymour is considered a potential successor to James Comey, the former Manhattan U.S. attorney who recently became the No. 2 official in the Justice Department. She is overseeing the prosecution of executives from WorldCom Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp. and Credit Suisse First Boston in the government's unparelleled crackdown on securities fraud.

But in no other case is Seymour trying the matter directly in court - perhaps underlining the importance the government has placed in convicting Stewart.

In court, DiSarro said, Seymour will be all business as she presents a case alleging that Stewart violated securities fraud laws, conspired to obstruct justice and made false statements regarding her sale of stock in the medical company.

"I don't view her as a homey, folksy kind of person," he said. "I view her very much in the mold of that office - uncompromising to the point of being a bit strident, but bright, fair and extremely intelligent."

At the defense table, Stewart will rely on Morvillo, 65, who is known for a facile mind, vast experience and a convincing presence before a jury.

He is also well-known for being unkempt in ways that would certainly violate his client's grooming guidelines.

"He could wear an Armani suit and look like he just walked out of Kmart," said Ron Fischetti, a lawyer and friend who worked with Morvillo in the 1989 defense of a Bronx congressman accused of bribery.

"His office is an absolute mess," Fischetti went on. "Files all over the place, no place to sit. But he can find anything that he wants."

No where is that more true than in the courtroom, where Morvillo has demonstrated a remarkable ability to recall vital documents and tidbits of information during cross-examinations.

It is under that spotlight, Fischetti points out, that the intense and occasionally bombastic Morvillo best shines.

"He plays very well to a jury. In my opinion, he plays as if he's everyman to a jury ... And he doesn't come across as a slick sharkskin mouthpiece kind of lawyer either," he adds.

Fischetti said his friend was working day and night to create profiles of each prospective juror based on questionnaires passed out Tuesday.

Consulting with experts, Morvillo developed questions designed to ascertain the likes and dislikes of the people who will judge his client, a woman whose fame has attracted many loyal fans and enemies.

"This case could be won or lost in the jury selection," Fischetti said.

In building his defense, Morvillo is tapping three decades of experience, including his early days as the chief of the criminal division for then-U.S. Attorney Whitney North Seymour Jr. - the uncle of Karen Seymour's husband.

In 1973, after Morvillo left the prosecutor's office, he and two colleagues - both of whom have served as federal prosecutors in Manhattan - started a firm focusing on white-collar crime, a specialty virtually unknown in those days. The firm has grown from the original three to three dozen.

In 1990, Morvillo and a colleague, Otto Obermaier, co-authored the book, "White Collar Crime."

"He's a pioneer in this business," Fischetti said. But he also noted that Morvillo is careful not to try his case in the press, avoiding interviews for the most part and being careful who talks with his client.

Stewart, who has a reputation of closely controlling the world around her, conceded in an interview with CNN's Larry King that her "really wonderful legal team" is guiding her actions.

"And my legal team has inspired me to behave in the appropriate fashion," she told King.

"But as strong as you are - and we know you're strong - are you good at listening? Do you take direction?" King asked.

"If you had Mr. Morvillo as your attorney, you would be taking direction," she answered.