Martha Stewart's criminal conviction sends the message that the government will zealously pursue those it suspects of insider trading, even when the parties involved are deep-pocketed, powerful and well-connected, legal experts say.

It is a message that prosecutors hope will be telegraphed to everyone from the ambitious corporate executive who considers cutting corners to the guy who gets a juicy inside tip about his brother-in-law's company.

"It's a wonderful day for the rule of law," said Stephen Presser, a professor of business law at Northwestern University's School of Law and Kellogg School of Management.

"The message this sends is no one is immune. No one is above the law," Presser said.

"This is a better Greek tragedy than Sophocles could have come up with. If she hadn't lied, she wouldn't be going to jail."

Stewart, who made a fortune teaching people how to slip-cover chairs, divide flower bulbs and frost wedding cakes, was convicted Friday on four criminal counts of obstructing justice, lying to the government and conspiracy related to her 2001 sale of stock in ImClone Systems Inc.

She never was charged with insider trading. But the jury didn't buy Stewart's explanation for her exquisitely timed sale of stock in ImClone, a biotech company that was awaiting U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of a cancer drug.

Stewart sold her ImClone stock the day before the FDA rejected the drug. She had received a tip from her broker that ImClone Chief Executive Sam Waksal was dumping his stock. Stewart denied she acted on inside information, arguing that her sale was triggered by a prearranged agreement to sell at a certain price.

The same jury that convicted Stewart also found her former Merrill Lynch & Co. broker, Peter Bacanovic, guilty of conspiracy, perjury, making a false statement and obstruction of justice,

The verdict against Stewart likely means prison time for the 62-year-old celebrity who epitomizes meticulous homemaking and elaborate entertaining, legal experts say.

Some Stewart supporters contend that prosecutors fervently pursued the case simply because she was a well-known woman chief executive in a man's world.

But prosecutors had little choice, ethics experts say, given the recent cases of high-profile corporate scandals.

Dennis Kozlowski, the former chief executive of Tyco International Ltd., is on trial, accused of wrongfully spending millions in company funds on everything from his wife's $2 million birthday party in Sardinia to a $15,000 umbrella stand.

On Tuesday, Bernard Ebbers, the former CEO of telecom giant WorldCom Inc., was charged with securities fraud, conspiracy and orchestrating the largest corporate accounting scandal in U.S. history.

Twelve days before that, Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of Enron Corp., was charged with 35 counts of fraud, insider trading and other crimes. He faces up to 325 years in prison and fines totaling more than $80 million if convicted on all counts.

Case hard to ignore

Even though the dollars involved in Stewart's case are much smaller, the government couldn't look the other way, attorneys say.

"You've got a series of corporate scandals involving rich and powerful people. Here you have another rich and influential person, and there's some evidence that she was engaged in insider trading," said Ron Allen, a professor of criminal law at Northwestern.

"In a way, she was made an example of, but I don't think she was picked out to be an example. The government probably felt it had little choice," he said.