When federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) confronts Chicago gangland kingpin Alphonse Capone (Robert De Niro) in the penultimate court scene in the 1987 neo-noir film classic, The Untouchables, he screams to his face: “And so endeth the lesson.” It was not like that on Tuesday in the United States vs. Conrad Black et al.

The Black Baron has received much gratuitous advice since this trial began. But it was more “begins the lesson” rather than “ends it”. Donald Trump advised him to “hang tough”. Peter Worthington, his media lapdog, has already foretold his magnificent victory:

Sometimes columnists, cautious as a breed, dare go out on a limb. After covering the first two weeks of the Conrad Black trial in Chicago and hearing rough outlines of the prosecution’s case against him, and various defence counsels’ case against the US government’s case, I’m prepared to make a prediction. Conrad Black will be found not guilty, as will his four co-defendants…

It was the same in The Untouchables when illegal Canadian booze flooded across the border. Capone had the media feeding out of his hand like Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s chooks and was merely supplying demand. Ness was an obvious killjoy and an also-ran with the media until he came up with the books and the bookkeeper that put Big Al in Alcatraz for tax evasion.

Trump has the credibility and charisma of a cockroach. Worthington is a beautiful writer but an empty vessel that sounds only to his own echo. How’s this for compromised vanity?

Last week, while covering the Conrad Black trial, Black’s lawyer approached me during one of the breaks and announced that his sister had been reading my columns in the Sun “and is now one of your fans.”

I blushed prettily, and quipped: “What took her so long – I’ve been writing columns for as long as the Toronto Sun has existed.”

“She’s been out of the country,” said Greenspan, mischievously.

The next two witnesses will be David Paxton, CEO of Paxton Media Group and Angela Easterling Way, Kipnis’s former assistant. The case continues.

Black has reporters in his corner. Antonia Zerbisias, Toronto Star:

Too bad for Conrad Black that Peter Worthington, founding editor of The Toronto Sun, Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford and Mark Steyn of Maclean’s aren’t on the jury at his Chicago trial for racketeering, obstruction of justice, money laundering, tax evasion and fraud.

To cite Blatchford, they’re Wal-Mart-wardrobed workies “each of whose thighs appears to weigh more than all of Barbara Amiel on a fat day, many garbed in the improbably cheerful colours (royal blue, baby blue, lime green, coral, turquoise) of this continent’s big box malls.” Thank God justice is blind.

As for Steyn, well, the best that can be said about his blogging is that he has a selective grasp of the facts…So who needs a pricey defence team when Steyn works so cheaply? At least he declares his conflict of interest – a career and philosophical fealty to Black – as does Blatchford, who has worked for both the Lord and his Lady.

Not so Worthington, also acting for the defence – if only the trial were being held in Toronto – with his words attacking the prosecution and its case. His conflict of interest, working alongside Amiel at the Sun, has not been declared in any columns since the trial began.

But really, when did legal journalism turn into entertainment reporting, complete with critiques of the costumes and the performances? OJ Simpson can be blamed for all this, and also for spawning the legal shows that litter the US cable TV landscape.

No, there’s no doubt this is a tough trial to cover. It is tough to explicate, tougher still to animate. But some writers on the case should excuse themselves, and have their opinions struck from the journalistic record.

Word of the week. Mark Steyn, “Trial of Conrad Black” blog at Macleans.ca:

I wonder if young Mr Sussman, the boyish charmer who’s the star prosecutor on the government side, is going to make this a regular feature. Last week, reading out one of Conrad Black’s rococo emails to the court, he stumbled over the word “calumnies”. The email was blown up and splashed across a huge screen in the room – “published”, as the lawyers say – so we could all see what was causing Mr Sussman his pronunciation difficulties. “coll…” he began “cal-UMM”, as if it were the same as “alumni”. He tried again, and then gave up. “I dunno,” he said. “What is that?” He turned helplessly to the defence team, and eventually Edward Genson said, “Conrad?” It was left to the defendant to supply the correct pronunciation of the word.

Now this was great theatre. But it seems to me unlikely, even given the debased state of the public education system, that a man who has been to law school, as Mr Sussman presumably has, would be unfamiliar with this word, which at one time was not uncommon in matters of legal dispute. So, unless he’s planning on being the first illiterate to make it to the Supreme Court, he’s playing a game here. The object is to position the defendant as a man whose very language reeks of snobbery and elitism. The government has apparently figured that this is a jury from a one-syllable neighbourhood, and won’t take kindly to toffee-nosed foreigners flaunting exotic polysyllables at them. In the days ahead, we’ll find out whether Mr Sussman plans to make this a running joke.

Black 500 to 1 to hit slammer. It had to happen. US gaming website BetUS.com is offering 500 to 1 on Black getting a guilty verdict to serve some jail time. You would have to bet $5000 just to see a $100 profit. Any chance of him not serving any jail time, you could walk off with $2500 for every $100 bet.

The odds that Black will be found guilty on all charges are currently listed as 2-1, that he will be found guilty on some charges are 1-3, that he will be found not guilty on all charges are 10-1 and predictions of a mistrial stand at 30-1.

A betting line has also been opened on the future of Black’s relationship with wife Barbara Amiel: Odds that the couple will be divorced by the end of 2008 are currently 5-1, while their marriage surviving sits at 1-10. Black-crazed gamblers can also wager on whether he’ll be stripped of his Lordship in England before the end of 2009 (50-1) and whether he’ll regain his Canadian nationality before the end of 2008 (5-1 odds in favour, 1-10 against).

Don’t bet on it though. There is better money to be made running a newspaper company and paying your self tax-free bonuses of US$60 million a year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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