JUSTICE

THE BUZZARDS CIRCLE

Every day, more media: all to capture live the march to the scaffold

July 23 2007
JUSTICE

THE BUZZARDS CIRCLE

Every day, more media: all to capture live the march to the scaffold

July 23 2007

THE BUZZARDS CIRCLE

Every day, more media: all to capture live the march to the scaffold

JUSTICE

And the days dwindle down to a precious few...June, July... and still no word came. In the Ritz-Carlton the other afternoon, Conrad Black was in the midst of some or other gleeful crack about this or that prosecutor or journalist or government witness when his daughter stepped out of the elevator and began her distinctive willowy lope across the lobby. Alana had sat loyally in court day after day, week after week, alert and attentive, and more aware than the principal defendant that she was always on-camera, or at least on-journalist’s-notebook. For four months she had kept her poise and constrained her range of facial expressions to a generous smile, a look of intense concentration, and an optional extra of intriguing inscrutability. At the Ritz-Carlton, I got the big smile, and a sweet tilt of the head, and a couple of social pleasantries, and then she turned to her father and informed him that there was a well-founded rumour that the jury would deliver their verdict the next day. Conrad Black was off-duty—not in the suit

and tie he wears when summoned to the courthouse, but in slacks and a polo shirt. Fie looked, in fact, like a dad. And though, minutes earlier, he’d been full of his usual boisterousness and bullishness, on hearing his daughter’s news he gave a rueful shrug and just for an instant the air seemed to go out of him and he was pensive, and then subdued, and then sombre. And Alana’s big beaming smile deflated too, and the great bucker-upper—“The Trooper,” as one of my press colleagues calls her—was suddenly one of those sad little girls in The Railway Children or some such Edwardiana, when the coppers come to take daddy away.

Young Miss Black was wrong. It wasn’t the next day, or the day after that. On Tuesday afternoon, Lord Black was hustled to the courtroom to hear Judge Amy St. Eve read the latest jury note. He wasn’t required to be there, but it shows respect for the process to turn up on 15 minutes’ notice. So a suit, shirt and tie are always laid out in his hotel room and ready to go when the jury calls. (The hosiery is another matter: he was without socks in court that day.) So what was the note about? Would it be the verdict? No, you get half an hour’s notice of that. Were they requesting another demonstrative exhibit or an SEC filing? No. Instead, the nine women and three men had sent the judge a note informing her that “we have discussed and deliberated on all the evidence

and we are still unable to reach a unanimous verdict on one or more counts.”

There were four defendants and 42 different charges—13 for Black, eight for Kipnis, 10 for Hollinger veep Peter Atkinson, 11 for financial wiz Jack Boultbee. Had they decided to acquit Kipnis and were hung on Black, Boultbee and Atkinson? Or had they decided to convict all four on the non-competes and were hung on the peripheral matter of Conrad and Barbara’s vacation to Bora Bora? No matter. “I will not accept a partial verdict at this time,” declared the judge. So back they went.

But in this game it’s all partial, with no hope of total acquittal or total vindication, only a partial recovery of some patch of ground from which to commence the next stage of the fight. Kay Kipnis, the wife of the lowliest of the four defendants, told me the other day that only the government can win. If you’re the fellow they’re trying to convict, even if they lose, you don’t “win”: you can only survive. It seems unlikely that Mark Kipnis, formerly Hollinger International’s senior counsel and a Chicago lawyer his entire adult life, will ever practise law in this city again. As for Conrad Black, the definition of “survival” is a little different. “In the unlikely event of acquittal, his career as a powerful press lord is over,” pronounced my old friend Richard Ingrams in Britain’s Observer last weekend. Conrad doesn’t see

it like that, though the odds would appear to favour the Ingrams view.

But the trick, as if in some unending gameshow-from-hell, is to survive into the next round. Over a latte with the defendant’s wife, I was making a rather detached legal point when an agitated Barbara Amiel interrupted: “Mark, we’re talking about Conrad in shackles and an orange jumpsuit.” I didn’t know what to say. But I’d noticed a few weeks ago that Lord Black himself was now allowing for the possibility of partial defeat: “I think we’re in the clear on the non-competes, and if we lose on the party or the plane we can move for...” Etc., etc. You’re never really in the clear, not totally, finally, no-more-lawyers-on-the-payroll in the clear.

I can’t speak for the defendants, but for yours truly these last two weeks have been the most dispiriting, a glimpse into the pit of hell into which three relatively ordinary fellows plus one outsized British peer have been lowered by fate and the U.S. justice system. While the trial itself—from comedy accountant Fred Creasey to Governor Jim (The Skim) Thompson to chief prosecutor Eric Sussman’s interminable floundering closing—was a vaudeville bill of distractions, the fortnight that followed was an intermission with no end in sight. Even more than usually so, the Blacks’ life was on pause.

Their legal team had already moved on to plan for the next stage of bad news—preparing motions to prevent the seizure of their house in Palm Beach, holding strategy sessions to discuss grounds for appeal. The press had stampeded onto the stage after that, hopping a cab out to the nearest federal penitentiary to case the joint or passing on helpful advice from self-help guides on how not to drop the soap in the showers. The defendant himself was not yet ready to join his journalistic tormentors or high-priced legal advisers in considering the next circle of hell. He had no desire to check in early with the feds’ tailor to pick out shades of orange, buttons or French cuffs. So he sat in the Ritz-Carlton and waited, and waited. After the jury was sent back for further deliberations, a headline flashed up on my BlackBerry which I misread as: “Conrad Black Told To Resume Work After Deadlock.” In fact, it was “Conrad Black Jury Told To Resume Work.” Conrad Black would love to be told he could resume work, but there’s not much chance of that.

It was a game to the media, holed up across the Chicago River on the 12th floor of a Mies van der Rohe federal office building these last two weeks in an antiseptic

recreation of The Front Page—no booze and poker, but Starbucks and euchre, and heady bets on the outcome, and speculation about Barbara Amiel’s repertoire of sexual techniques. And, after allowing the Canucks to provide most of the manpower for the multinational media circus these last few months, there has been with each passing day an ever-swelling cast of BBC Television staff, and BBC Radio staff, and BBC World Service staff and BBC News 24 staff and no doubt BBC Papua New Guinea Service staff, none of whom attended a moment of the trial but turned out en masse to capture live the march to the scaffold. The trial wasn’t

ON HEARING HIS DAUGHTER'S NEWS, HE GAVE A RUEFUL

SHRUG. FOR AN INSTANT THE AIR SEEMED TO GO OUT OF HIM.

worth sending a solitary Beeb reporter to, but the hoist to the gallows merited dozens of ’em. One of the courtroom sketch artists told me it reminded her of an old cartoon of two buzzards circling a dying man: “So die already.”

Was it a game to Conrad Black, too? For much of his time in Chicago, he seemed to be playing it as one, manoeuvering the salt and pepper shakers round the restaurant table in my hotel as he compared the crossexamination of Richard Burt to the Battle of Jutland. In the latter stages of the trial, he’d forgo the military metaphors, gliding

up the gangway during breaks in proceedings to crack a conspiratorial grin at Kevin, the court security officer, and hiss in a grand stage whisper: “Have you ever heard such bullshit in your life?” For the most part, Kevin hadn’t. Like many other regulars in the Everett Dirksen courthouse, he’d come to enjoy the company of this strange bear of a British lord who’d somehow washed up in the Northern District of Illinois.

There was a kind of psychological claustrophobia in the small windowless l2th-floor courtroom. Somewhere upstairs there was a mob trial, somewhere downstairs people were filing for bankruptcy, and north, south, east and west life went on— Bush, Blair, Paris Hilton, Iraq, Afghanistan, Live Earth... sitting at the centre table of the cluttered courtroom, Conrad Black, the last press lord, confidant of prime ministers and potentates, historian of presidents and surveyor of the far horizon of history, seemed like a great Hollywood star beached in a daytime soap. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, he was still big, it was the case that had got small, shrivelled by the lèse-majesté of the law that is apparently

the norm in the Everett Dirksen courthouse.

There will be a lot of second-guessing over partial verdicts and hung juries. Black’s lead attorney, Ed Genson, is an old mob lawyer, used to defending suspicious characters by moving an open-and-shut case into the grey terrain of reasonable doubt. On a case with 42 counts on the jury sheet, that’s almost an invitation to shift into partial-verdict territory. I would have liked not just a bit of pointby-point back-and-forth but a full-scale alternative to the government’s narrative of scheming kleptocrats living the high life on the shareholders’ dime. Whatever else may be said of him, Conrad Black is an epic figure, and he deserved an epic trial. M