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Sunday 1 July 2007

Conrad Black trial exposes naked greed - and that's just the lawyers

LAWYERS! Dontya love 'em? Conrad Black and co are being tried in Chicago and are thereby helping to enrich many of the local law firms. Perkins Coie, which has been in existence for only three years, was distressed at not being in on the act, so it decided to drum up publicity and attract new lawyers to join the firm, by making Hugh Totten, one of its partners, hang around the court making himself available to the media to comment on the case.

"It mushroomed beyond anything I anticipated," explained a gleeful Totten, who was regularly quoted in newspapers all over the world.

One day he was interviewed by all three local TV news stations: "It was an amazing trifecta [a bet where you pick the horses that come first, second and third]."

Totten thinks Black will be found guilty of two of the 13 charges he faces. Other lawyer-commentators are variously predicting he'll be found guilty of all charges, guilty of none or that it's a "coin-toss". Me learnéd friends didn't get where they are today by agreeing with each other.

The jury has been out since Thursday, having earlier last week heard the last of the defence lawyers assuring them that nothing illegal was done and there were no victims except the guys in the dock: as Mark Steyn neatly summarised it: "A series of events, lawful in themselves, have been strung into a daisy chain by the US government and retrospectively criminalised."

In its rebuttal, the prosecution tried to compensate for the shredding of David Radler, Black's partner of 30 years who did a plea-bargaining deal and had been presented as their main witness, by saying that, after all, his testimony was not central.

This mainly blue-collar jury now has to contemplate over seven million pieces of evidence and testimony from more than 50 witnesses. The defendants are nervous that jurors who get paid $40 a day and 45¢ a mile expenses may be less than charitable about rich people who drank Champagne, ate caviar, travelled on private jets and flashed enormous rocks: don't judge Black "on his wealth, his lifestyle and his vocabulary", pleaded one of his lawyers.

The ever-helpful Totten told The New York Times that while only a fool would predict how long the jury will be out, "the rule of thumb is that a jury takes a day for every week of trial".

Barbara Amiel Black recently wrote of their routine over the last 15 weeks: "Get up at 6.45am, leave for court at 8.25am, pat-down by pleasant court security man 8.50am, listen to nasty things said about us till 5pm, with a lunch break for one banana and a carton of skim milk." After that, she would stay in the hotel and write while Black usually went out with friends.

As the defendants have to appear within 30 minutes of the jury coming to a conclusion, they will have more dreary days to come.

I came across two bloggers on the Malaysia Sun website who I thought splendidly summed up the contrasting attitudes of the non-lawyer in the street. "The crime that Lord Conrad Black is charged with," wrote 'Sognia', "is simply an evil-spirited attempt on the part of the US prosecution's team and other jealous people hell-bent on destroying the impeccable reputation of brilliant man, by alleging Lord Black stole millions from disgruntled shareholders, yet not one shareholder was produced as a witness.

"The prosecution case is simply full of holes and very fictitious, justice will prevail. Once Lord Black is acquitted and his name is fully cleared of all wrongdoings, I sincerely hope that he sues the asses of all perpetrators that have made his life a living hell for many years. Shame on you, impious minions, you know who you are and you'll get your just desert in due course. Blessings from above to Lord Black and his family."

'BlackKnight' disagreed vigorously. "Anyone who has followed the life of Conrad Black will not be surprised when the jury brings in a verdict of guilty. This is a man who was willing to sell the shareholders down the drain to satisfy his own greed and ego; this is a man who turned his back on his birth country by renouncing his citizenship to obtain a peerage - and who is now seeking to have it reinstated so he can qualify for the same cushy sentencing that David Radler will get. This is a man who will serve time."

The lawyers should be on Sognia's side. Think of the pickings if Black goes free and starts suing.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards