Oprah 1, Beef 0

updated 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN MANY WAYS THE JOYS OF AMARILLO in wintertime were lost on Oprah Winfrey. During the six weeks she stayed in that Texas town, defending herself in a $10 million libel suit brought by a group of cattlemen, the talk show host raced between courthouse and makeshift TV studio, crashed in a bed-and-breakfast several steps down in luxury from her usual digs—and gained weight. One memorable day, in the ladies' room at the federal courthouse, a woman stuck her head under the door of the stall Oprah was using and handed her a résumé.

By Feb. 25, the first afternoon of jury deliberations, Winfrey, 44, was seriously bummed out. That day the jurors, wrestling with a complex case involving a superstar, a local cattle baron named Paul Engler, free speech and the economics of beef, had asked U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson, 71, to let them rewatch a tape of the Oprah episode that sparked all the trouble back in April 1996. During a segment devoted to "Dangerous Foods," guest expert Howard Lyman had raised the prospect of mad cow disease in American beef, and Winfrey had replied that the notion "just stopped me cold from eating another burger!" With that food for thought, the jury deliberated four hours, then went home without reaching a verdict.

That night, on the phone with her close friend and fellow talk show host Gayle King, Winfrey was subdued. "Maybe it'll be a hung jury," she said. "But I'm ready to lose." King thought she was surprisingly pessimistic, but notes that Oprah "isn't often wrong."

This was one of those rare exceptions. The next day the jury deliberated less than two hours. "Some of us wanted to sleep on it," says Amarillo mechanic Fred Dunaway, 40, one of four male jurors. "Some wanted to pray about it. I don't think some slept at all." But at 10:45 a.m. on Fri., Feb. 26, foreman Christy Sams, a state employee from Panhandle, delivered the verdict: Winfrey was not liable for any damages to the Texas cattle industry. As Sams said later, "We had to decide for the First Amendment."

Winfrey first shook her head in disbelief, then broke down and wept before hugging her lead attorney, media lawyer Chip Babcock. Next the adrenaline kicked in, and Winfrey was soon on the courthouse steps proclaiming, "Free speech not only lives, it rocks!" From there she went to the Amarillo Little Theatre, where she had been working since the trial started on Jan. 21. She taped two shows that night and, the next morning, a guest segment for Gayle King's show. Then she flew to Princeton, N.J., to interview Nobel laureate Toni Morrison for yet another show Finally on Monday, she rested at her Chicago high-rise. "She told me she probably wouldn't even go out or answer the phone all day," says King.

Winfrey won't chill for long. The fitness enthusiast, who told viewers that she had more time to "eat pie" than exercise during the trial, left Amarillo heavier by 11 pounds—one full dress size. And, legally, the story may have a second chapter. Engler plans to appeal, according to his chief attorney, Joe Coyne, who said the verdict felt to him "like getting kicked in the stomach."

What probably hurt him most, though, was a ruling five weeks into the trial that threw the case into disarray. Engler and a group of feeders sued Winfrey under a so-called veggie-libel law, which forbids false or disparaging statements about perishable farm products. Engler claimed Winfrey's mad cow remark caused a crash in the U.S. beef market. But Robinson ruled that the plaintiffs hadn't proved that a steer, like a tomato, has a brief shelf life. Forced to fall back on a narrower statute, Coyne had to prove that Winfrey's remarks were aimed specifically at his clients' beef.

Though the jury didn't buy that argument, not all of them were enthralled by Oprah. "It was a bad show," says juror Jean Snell, 67, a retired farmwife from White Deer. "People in the mass media need to be doubly sure of their message." Yet Winfrey hadn't crossed the line into libel, says juror Cynthia Williams, 31, a third-grade teacher from Dumas. "She was just out there," says Williams, "asking questions like a normal person. The celebrity thing," she adds, "was not in any way part of our decision."

Still, Winfrey made an impression in Amarillo, in and out of court. One Sunday she attended the city's largest black church, Mount Zion Baptist. During her three days of testimony, she kept her take-charge TV personality in check, and she showed great poise during closing arguments, when the cattlemen's lawyers ridiculed her program ("They ran out of psychics talking to the dead and put on this show instead," cracked one). "She just had to sit there," says King, "and be quiet and take it." Even her courtroom rival Coyne was impressed. "She charmed me like she charmed everybody else," he says, "and I'm a tough nut."

"I hope she understands it was never us, the town, suing her," says Merrell Gossett, 42, a data entry supervisor who got in line at 2:30 a.m. for tickets to last Friday's taping. "If she knew how much love has been generated here for her..."

Winfrey did feel welcome in Amarillo. In a posttrial press conference, she thanked the townsfolk for their kindness. "I embrace them," she said. Yet when asked when she might return, Oprah smiled wryly and said, "I don't think it will be any time soon."

LAUREL BRIBAKFR CALKINS in Amarillo and CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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