Tell It to the Jury

updated 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Martha Stewart who might blow a fuse over an incorrectly set salad fork? Nowhere to be seen in the Old Greenwich, Conn., home of her sister Kathy Evans, 57, who on a recent winter morning received a surprise visit from an almost shockingly mellow Martha. "She did not seem as frenetic as she used to be," says Evans of Stewart, who chatted easily with her beside a crackling fire. "She was extraordinarily calm. The rest of us would be probably be tearing our hair out, but she is definitely convinced of her innocence."

Now she must similarly convince 12 complete strangers at her criminal trial, which began Jan. 20. For ail her outward calm and characteristic self-composure, Stewart, 62, has clearly been affected by the prospect of being found guilty of conspiracy, making false statements, obstruction of justice and securities fraud charges stemming from her $228,000 sale of Imclone Systems stock in December 2001. "Of course I'm scared," a tearful Stewart told Barbara Walters in a November ABC interview, part of a carefully calibrated public relations effort to soften her image. "The last place I would ever want to go is prison." (Stewart faces up to 30 years, but many experts believe she'd be sentenced to no more than a fraction of that or might face only fines.)

Until the new year, Stewart had stayed focused on Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the entrepreneurial empire that helped make her a billionaire (today her net worth is estimated at around half that). "Her whole life is her work," says Allen Grubman, her longtime friend and lawyer (though not in the pending case). "She has always merged her personal life into her working life." Since turning her attention to the trial, she started shuttling daily between her Westport, Conn., home and Manhattan, where she prepared in a conference room of her lawyer's midtown office. "Martha just keeps going," says Melissa Neufeld, her friend and product designer. "She doesn't whine or complain."

Instead Stewart is letting influential supporters plead her case. "It's literally a witch hunt, only it's a bitch hunt," says Rosie O'Donnell, who believes that Stewart's standing as one of the country's top businesswomen made her a federal target. "They are trying to rip down this woman." O'Donnell brushes aside the allegations against Stewart, emphasizing, "She is not even [criminally] charged with insider trading." Former U.S. Attorney James Comey sees it differently. "This criminal case is about lying—lying to the FBI, lying to the SEC and lying to investors," he said in June. "Martha Stewart is being prosecuted not because of who she is but because of what she did."

So how else does a domestic diva prepare for courtroom battle? Just before heading to the Caribbean for Christmas, Stewart and her mother, Martha Kostyra, 89, baked what Kostyra calls "a nice holiday babka." Again, Stewart showed no signs of strain. "I don't see it too often," says Kostyra. "I'm sure she feels it inwardly. How could she not?" (Kostyra herself admits to feeling "lousy, terrible, depressed.") Stewart's sister Evans says she has noticed one change: "She is more able to listen to what other people say now. That to me is an interesting change."

The person she listens to most these days is attorney Robert Morvillo (see box). "He is really her rock," says Grubman. "She is taking a significant amount of direction from him." Ironically, Morvillo keeps a hopelessly cluttered office and is given to rumpled suits. That's probably okay with Martha—as long as he cleans up her mess.

Jill Smolowe. Sharon Cotliar in New York City

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