Conrad Black is innocent. No, I don't know Conrad Black, never met him. No, I have made no examination of the evidence against him. Nor do I need to in order to assert his innocence. Three considerations compel my conclusion. First, Lord Black is presumptively innocent.
This means no criminal wrongdoing has been proven against him in any court of competent jurisdiction. So don't talk to me about questionable business practices, or labyrinthine corporate structures, or a lavish lifestyle; I won't hear it. We're discussing innocence not lifestyle. I don't claim that Lord Black was a conventional or even a reputable businessman (although he could well have been exemplary for all I know); I wouldn't want the jet-setting lifestyle and find it difficult to imagine why he, or anyone, would want it. That's irrelevant. I say only that he is innocent.
It is commonplace today for people to say that the presumption of innocence is just a legal fiction; after all, what about O.J.? To which I reply: If you are right, if the presumption of innocence is a legal fiction, then God help us all. The presumption of innocence is the single most important distinction between a free society and a tyranny, between a safe world and a place where people cower in fear of the "midnight knock" and grey figures who take you away where you may not be heard from again. It is tyrants, actual or would-be, who do not value the presumption of innocence.
So, first, Conrad Black is presumptively innocent.
Second, I taught and practised criminal law. I prosecuted many cases and, over time, I learned a simple lesson: Strong cases do not need press bolstering. Facts, when they come out in court, speak for themselves. In Lord Black's case, I notice that it is the prosecution, not the defence, which is holding the press conferences.
A prosecutor's conduct is usually a reliable barometer; a strong prosecution case is conducted even-handedly and with restraint. This is exactly the opposite of the prosecutorial grandstanding we have seen to date.
Instead we see, admittedly from afar, a vindictive campaign of character assassination, vilification, asset seizure, etc. Lord Black's properties have
been frozen; his liberties have been restricted; he has been lectured at by judges -- all before any criminal wrongdoing has been proved against him. If similar tactics were directed against others, the heavens would resound with outrage from civil libertarians; since the target is Lord Black, the prosecution tactics evoke a yawn.
However, one or two voices outside Canada have sounded an alarm; for example, in the New English Review, Alykhan Velshi wrote: "The trial by attrition of Conrad Black has exposed the dark underbelly of the legal system, where the government can ruin a man, take his property, his means of livelihood and make him a social pariah -- all without the hassle of securing a conviction."
Police overcharging is a daily occurrence; one duty of a conscientious prosecutor is to prune away excessive charges and to proceed only on those which are not duplicative and where there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.
The U.S. prosecutors have charged Lord Black with more than a dozen criminal offences, including fraud, racketeering, money laundering, obstruction of justice and tax evasion; then they add on a slew of regulatory offences. And each new charge is the occasion for another press conference. I used to teach students that it was unprofessional and unethical to try criminal charges in the press, but it is standard practice for Lord Black's prosecutors.
The final reason for my confidence has a name; in fact, two names: Tom Bower and Ed Greenspan.
Mr. Bower is the author of the 2006 book Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge. His book is not on the edge, it is over the top. This is not a biography; it is a drive-by smear that will repel any fair-minded reader. To be driven to such excesses to convict Conrad Black in the court of public opinion suggests to me that similar allegations against him may evaporate when in a court of law.
Ed Greenspan is Lord Black's defence counsel. Eons ago, around the dawn of time, Ed and I articled together and have remained acquainted since. I have prosecuted cases that Ed has defended, and I know at firsthand his forensic abilities. Lord Black will be ably defended.
It seems to me that what really gets up Canadian noses about Conrad Black is that he is rich (or was, at least, before legal fees drained him) and successful; he is also intelligent and outspoken. Elsewhere, these might be considered attributes and evoke admiration. In Canada they mostly evoke envy.
- Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.
© National Post 2007