Martha Stewart feels the strain as the 'idiot' gives his evidence

Martha Stewart was standing to leave her securities fraud trial on Thursday when her daughter, Alexis, reached over to remove an errant strand of hair from her mother's face. At least Martha had three days of respite to look forward to before proceedings resume tomorrow. By the way she looked, she needed it.

The ground seemed to be crumbling beneath Ms Stewart through most of the week with testimony from a witness who has quickly become the other star of this trial. Once belittled - as the jury heard - by Ms Stewart as a "little shit" and an "idiot", he sung the prosecution's song with perfect pitch. The "idiot" was Douglas Faneuil, once an assistant to Ms Stewart's former broker at Merrill Lynch, and her co-defendant in the trial, Peter Bacanovic.

Helped by several emails presented as evidence, he painted Ms Stewart as a nightmare client who once threatened to take her business away from Merrill because she didn't care for the jingles it played on its telephone system when she was put on hold.

But the real bombshell from Mr Faneuil came earlier in proceedings. He flatly described how, on 27 December 2001, he warned Ms Stewart on the telephone that the founder of ImClone, a drugs company in which she had stock, was dumping his shares. Her response was quick, he said: "I want to sell".

Thus, the main premise of the case against Ms Stewart, the celebrity homemaking guru, appeared to have been corroborated. The then chief executive of ImClone, Sam Waksal, had bailed out because he knew the government was going to withhold approval the following day of a drug the company was making. Thanks to the call from Mr Faneuil - allegedly acting on orders from Mr Bacanovic - so did Ms Stewart.

Unflappable on the stand, Mr Faneuil, 27, went on to recall how he became ensnared in a cover-up of these events. Both defendants claimed there had been a prior agreement between them to sell the ImClone shares if they fell beneath a certain price. Not so, said Mr Faneuil. No wonder the stoic expression worn by Ms Stewart at times turned to one of distress.

The government, which is accusing Ms Stewart of perjury, obstruction of justice and securities fraud - charges that could bring her 30 years in prison - appears to have bet the case on Mr Faneuil. With relentless cross-examination - so repetitive it drew groans from the public pews and more than one reprimand from the judge - the lawyer for Mr Bacanovic attempted to discredit Mr Faneuil.

Implied in some of the cross-examination was the notion that Mr Faneuil was fixated with Ms Stewart and was therefore out to get her. To show this, the defence lawyer, David Apfel, asked about some testy phone calls he had exchanged with Ms Stewart before the ImClone debacle. It is not clear if the strategy worked; some of what was described drew hearty laughter from the jury.

"She told you she was going to leave Mr Bacanovic and leave Merrill Lynch unless the hold music was changed," Mr Apfel told Mr Faneuil, who nodded. And then there were the emails that the witness had written to friends describing what it had been like dealing with Ms Stewart.

"I just spoke to Martha," he said in one. "I have never been treated more rudely by a stranger on the telephone. She actually hung up on me." In another, he wrote: "Martha yelled at me again today, but I snapped in her face and she actually backed down! Baby put Ms Martha in her place!!"

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