TORONTO — Former Canadian media baron Conrad Black is showing the courts that he hasn’t thrown in the towel on the fight to save his reputation, and this week came out swinging with both a formal request to be released on bail alongside a new legal challenge to fight his convictions for fraud and obstruction of justice.
While it was widely anticipated that Black would use a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to try, once again, to lessen his time in jail, many legal observers say they are skeptical the plan will actually go off without a hitch.
“There is a chance he could have some time shaved off his sentence but I don’t think it’s going to be the remainder of his sentence shaved off,” said James Morton, a Toronto lawyer who has followed the case.
“Remember, he was still convicted on that obstruction of justice charge. If it wasn’t for that charge and that conviction, I would say he has a really good chance of leaving jail early.”
However, even while some say the odds are against him, Black’s lawyers are launching a challenge to the weightier obstruction of justice charge in a plan that, if successful, could clear his name entirely.
Black’s lawyer made the legal filing Tuesday with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, now that the top court in the United States sent his 2007 fraud convictions back to a lower court.
Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that a law used to help convict Black on three counts of mail fraud had to be applied more narrowly. The ruling didn’t exonerate Black but does give him another chance to argue against his convictions.
In addition to fraud, Black was convicted of the more serious count of obstruction of justice that carried a 6 1/2-year sentence, which Black is serving in a Florida jail. The obstruction charge wasn’t part of the Supreme Court’s recent decision but Black’s lawyers are arguing the obstruction conviction should also be thrown out.
In the request for bail, Black’s lawyers say the Supreme Court’s “rejection of the fraud theory goes to the heart of the most hotly contested issues at Mr. Black’s trial — whether there was a scheme to defraud and whether Mr. Black ’corruptly’ intended to obstruct the investigation of this non-crime . . . ”
On the obstruction conviction, “the government’s proof of corrupt intent was desperately threadbare,” the application states.
Admitting that it is possible for someone to be convicted of obstruction even if acquitted of the underlying crime, the filing says that the question that should be asked is “whether this jury undoubtedly would have ruled for the government on the crucial, disputed element of ’corrupt’ intent, if it had been aware that the offence Mr. Black was supposedly endeavouring to obstruct was, as he maintained all along, not a crime at all.”
Prosecutors say Black should remain in the low-security federal prison because the ruling doesn’t affect the obstruction of justice count.
This isn’t the first time that Black has submitted an appeal. In 2008, he pushed ahead with an attempt that was rejected by the appeals court, and later was refused bail while he made further appeals.
In the latest filing, Black’s lawyers attempted to establish a difference between the two bail attempts.
“The Supreme Court now unanimously ruled that violation affecting Mr. Black’s Sixth Amendment jury trial right.”
As Black launches his latest strategic challenge, some observers are questioning how successful the attempt could possibly be — partly because he’s already deep into serving his existing sentence. It could take months, or longer, to resolve the latest dispute.
“By that time a decision is rendered it’s possible that most of his time could be up,” suggested Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago lawyer who has watched the case.
He said Black is really fighting for whatever he can at this point.
“He has kind of been thrown a lifeline a little bit and he has to cling to it because that’s all he’s got,” Stoltmann said.
“He has such a big ego. I really think in his own mind he’s still shocked that he was convicted. Somebody who thinks they’re innocent will fight too and nail to try and overturn that.”
The Hollinger International media empire, which Black controlled through a series of public and private Canadian companies, once owned the Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Telegraph of London, The Jerusalem Post and hundreds of community papers in the United States and Canada.