Day eight yesterday in The United States vs. Conrad Black et al and the playing field may be tipping a little in the Black Baron’s favour. Thursday’s court developments wrapped up the first two weeks of Trial Noir and we’ve now got three days in which to contemplate our navel until Monday.

Like the rest of us, the jury is not sequestered. At the end of each day, they go home, go to the pub, talk to mates, read the papers, see photographs and newsreel clips of the Black Baron and his Femme Fatale coming and going.

Everything that happened in court this week was overshadowed by what happened outside as the “vermin” generated headlines about themselves around the world.

Next week we have the delicious prospect of the Clarence Darrow-like, Chicagoan defence attorney Eddie Genson, tearing the prosecution’s key witness, former Black associate David Radler, limb from limb.

It should be enough to entice Fairfax reporter Mark Coulton to get up here from New York. Coulton’s bylines are tagged “Chicago” in The Age and “New York” in the SMH.

Prosecution bumbles. Peter Worthington, Sun Media:

Opening arguments in the Conrad Black trial concluded yesterday, and the overall impression is that the prosecution is in tatters, ripped apart by the high-priced lawyers for Black and his three co-accused. Of course, this is only the beginning and we have months of detailed evidence to be paraded before this working-class Chicago jury of 12 women and four men (four are alternates).

But perhaps it’s early enough to suggest the government has made a huge tactical error by trying all the four cases together (Black and former Hollinger execs Peter Atkinson, Jack Boultbee and Mark Kipnis), while the defence is arguing each case separately.

What this means is, that every time a prosecution witness takes the stand to proclaim the villainy of the accused (presuming that’s what’s expected of him), four sets of lawyers with vastly more experience than the youngish, slightly brash prosecutors take turns in cross examining. It’s a fair bet that for some witnesses, cross-examination will be like the torquemada. (The Chicago jurors won’t understand that word, but it doesn’t matter since all have sworn as God is their witness that they don’t read newspapers or watch news programs about Black.) …

Radler was the architect of all sales and deals in the US and Western Canada. He seems to have dreamed up the lavish non-compete fees, which really are a non-taxable bonus for the defendants. While bonuses are taxed in Canada, non-compete payments aren’t – but may soon be when the government closes that loophole.

A hint of what’s to come was when the prosecution put Gordon Paris on the witness stand. He was on the board and chairman of audit committees and is a government witness. He tried to explain the ownership structure by way of charts – charts that showed Black owned 65% of the holding company Ravelston, which owned Toronto-based Hollinger Inc. (46%), which in turn owned 16% of Chicago-based Hollinger International.

Black’s co-defence counsel, Eddie Genson, interjected and asked Paris what years these charts depicted.

Paris didn’t know. He hadn’t produced them, the government had, but he thought they were accurate and said, in effect, “we” had checked them.

“Who’s ‘we?’ ” demanded Genson. Paris floundered. The prosecution was knocked a bit off-stride and Genson was told by Judge Amy St. Eve not to interrupt. Genson said he’d apologize after every interruption.

At the end of yesterday even British journalists whom Conrad’s wife, Barbara, had labelled “vermin” felt his chances had taken an upturn.

Black, of course, insisted he’s innocent and this trial is a waste of time, and would never have occurred in Canada. He may be right. It has the flavour of a witch hunt, with Canadians the bad guys taking advantage of innocent Americans.

Mark Steyn, in the Chicago Sun-Times, opined that the prosecution is presenting Canada as “Cayman Islands North, where anything goes.

I’m no Gatsby, peer tells Times. The Black Baron doesn’t have to speak in court but he can’t resist dropping a note to The Times and thereby giving James Bone the best scoop and byline of the first two weeks of Trial Noir:

Lord Black of Crossharbour today rejects suggestions that his world has “imploded, like Gatsby’s” and vows to return to Britain.

The former Daily Telegraph proprietor, who is spending eight hours a day in court, found time at the start of his fraud trial in Chicago to write a letter to The Times.

Signing himself “Conrad Black”, the peer distances himself from the supportive sentiments expressed earlier this week by William Rees-Mogg, who compared him to F Scott Fitzgerald’s party-loving and flawed millionaire.

On Monday Lord Rees-Mogg declared himself flattered that Lord Black had named him one of only three friends who remained loyal to him after he was accused of looting his newspaper empire.

He said last night: “I’m not sure Gatsby is a charlatan, actually. He’s perceived as a war hero. He’s plainly perceived as highly charismatic. But he’s perceived as somebody who’s carried away by his own ambitions.

The letter:

Sir, Thanks to William Rees-Mogg for his generous remarks (comment, March 19), but his friend misinformed him. I was not interviewed by Vanity Fair; the reference was in Tatler, where I expressed my gratitude for the very large number of people in the UK (and in other countries), who have been entirely supportive through this challenging period. Among British journalists and editors, I singled him out, along with Dominic Lawson and William Oddie.

I understand he meant well by his reference to The Great Gatsby, but Gatsby was an amiable charlatan who ended up being murdered in his own swimming pool. I accept the sentiment but not the analogy. Lord Rees-Mogg seems to imagine that while I may well be acquitted, my world has somewhat imploded, like Gatsby’s. I don’t think so.

I was departing the conventional newspaper industry anyway, although I had not foreseen such a tumultuous exit, but when justice is done in Chicago, I will be back, and look forward to seeing him.

CONRAD BLACK, Chicago

Bone doesn’t tell us if it was on Ritz-Carlton Hotel letterhead for this would surely boost its eventual price on eBay. The Times, of course, is a paper of record. But they subbed out the first paragraph where Black says the old geezer got it totally wrong. I say. Poor show, old chap!

Douglas Bell, Toronto Life blog, “The trial of CB”:

Both sides got in their opening shots, and the interested world press continues to throw the kitchen sink into their coverage. The Globe now seems to have three people in the courtroom: one observing the lawyers (Brown), one observing the jury (Waldie) and one observing her navel (Blatchford). As for the truth, might I suggest a soupçon of the Sun’s crusty yet reliable founding editor Peter Worthington (the only one who got the jury fracas right). The master summed up yesterday’s proceedings in seven terse words: “Nothing unexpected. And little that was new.”

Babs Amiel’s powersuits take stand. Hadley Freeman from The Guardian is the latest to line up for a catfight with a certain former Fleet Street journalist who had 6,000 articles published in the Times and Sunday Times before she met Lord Black:

At the risk of being labelled a “sl-t”, it is surely time to examine the courtroom outfits of Lady Black, better known to her detractors as Barbara Amiel, wife of beleaguered tycoon Conrad Black. “Sl-t” was the description Amiel used this week for a journalist who dared to ask her a question at her husband’s racketeering trial. “Journalists are vermin. I used to be a journalist and I never behaved like this,” she huffed. Indeed she didn’t – our Babs was too busy writing columns defending luminaries such as Leona Helmsley, the American “queen of mean” who was indicted for tax evasion in the 80s – and, dammit, journalism is poorer without her.

But to the clothes. Amiel proclaimed in an interview with Vogue in 2002 that “my extravagance knows no bounds”, a point she proved by laying out her finest Oscar de la Renta ball gowns and other assorted cleavage-flashing designer wares. Amiel went on to trill, “I’m not quite ready to play dead and to play safe.” Well, dead, perhaps not, but Amiel is now definitely playing safe. Every day so far in court she has worn a modest trouser suit which doesn’t exactly scream wealth – wisely, perhaps, seeing as there are now questions about whether those dresses were bought with some of the $84m (£43m) her husband is accused of pilfering from his newspaper empire.

Her first court appearance set the template: a simple trouser suit with a flashing gold necklace beneath. The next day was a brown tweed suit (underneath a coat) with a giant wooden necklace. Monday was a different tweed jacket with another bright piece of jewellery.

Amiel is very much pulling a Martha Stewart: when the US author and businesswoman was on trial for securities fraud in 2004, her outfits tried to make her look like a bland Everywoman. But Stewart couldn’t resist bringing her £3,000 Hermès Birkin bag. One can only keep one’s true nature at bay so long and so, although Amiel might have rationed herself to a brown suit, she just couldn’t get through the day without a bit of bling. Or slagging off a journalist.

Peter Fray

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