Sunday, November 23, 2008

Conrad Black, Fallen Press Baron, Discusses the U.S. Justice System and Plea Bargains from Behind Bars

Conrad Black, who once presided over the world's third-largest newspaper empire, is currently serving a 78 month prison sentence in the United States after being convicted on three counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice related to improper diversion of company funds for personal benefit. Black recently discussed life behind bars and the U.S. criminal justice system in London's Sunday Times.

I write to you from a US federal prison. It is far from a country club or even a regimental health spa. I work quite hard but fulfillingly, teaching English and the history of the United States to some of my co-residents. There is practically unlimited access to e-mails and the media and plenty of time for visitors.

Many of the other co-residents are quite interesting and affable, often in a Damon Runyon way, and the regime is not uncivilised. In eight months here there has not been the slightest unpleasantness with anyone. It is a little like going back to boarding school, which I somewhat enjoyed nearly 50 years ago (before being expelled for insubordination) and is a sharp change of pace after 16 years as chairman of The Daily Telegraph. I can report that a change is not always as good as a rest.

However, apart from missing the constant companionship of my magnificent wife Barbara, who visits me once, twice or even three times each week and lives nearby in our Florida home with her splendid Hungarian dogs, I enjoy some aspects of my status as a victim of the American prosecutocracy.

My appeal continues. Given the putrefaction of the US justice system, it is an unsought but distinct honour to fight this out and already to have won 85% of the case and 99% of the financial case. The initial allegation against me of a “$500m corporate kleptocracy” has shrunk to a false finding against me - that even some of the jurors have already fled from in post-trial comments – of the underdocumented receipt of $2.9m. There is no evidence to support this charge. It has been a grim pleasure to expose the hypocrisy of the corporate governance establishment, who have bankrupted our Canadian company and reduced the share price of the American one from $21, when I left, to a miraculous two cents (yes, two cents). They have vaporised $2 billion of public shareholder value; fine titles in several countries have deteriorated; and for their infamies, the protectors of the public interest have cheerfully trousered more than $200m.

US federal prosecutors, almost all of whom would be disbarred for their antics if they were in Britain or Canada, win more than 90% of their cases thanks to the withering of the constitutional guarantees of due process – that is, the grand jury as an assurance against capricious prosecution, no seizure of property without just compensation, access to counsel, an impartial jury, speedy justice and reasonable bail.

We did not know the grand jury was sitting, have never seen the transcript of its proceedings and I was denied counsel of choice by the ex parte seizure, which the jury later judged to be improper, of the proceeds of the sale of an apartment in New York that I was going to use as the retainer for trial counsel.

The system is based on the plea bargain: the barefaced exchange of incriminating testimony for immunity or a reduced sentence. It is intimidation and suborned or extorted perjury, an outright rape of any plausible definition of justice.

The US is now a carceral state that imprisons eight to 12 times more people (2.5m) per capita than the UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany or Japan. US justice has become a command economy based on the avarice of private prison companies, a gigantic prison service industry and politically influential correctional officers’ unions that agitate for an unlimited increase in the number of prosecutions and the length of sentences. The entire “war on drugs”, by contrast, is a classic illustration of supply-side economics: a trillion taxpayers’ dollars squandered and 1m small fry imprisoned at a cost of $50 billion a year; as supply of and demand for illegal drugs have increased, prices have fallen and product quality has improved.

I wish to advise Lord Hurd that when I return to the UK I would like to take up more energetically than I did initially his request for assistance in his custodial system reform activities.

Obviously, the bloom is off my long-notorious affection for America. But I note from recent comment in Britain and Europe that the habit of blaming anything that goes awry in the world on the US is alive and well. However, the United States has not disintegrated and American capitalism is not dead, nor even in failing health. The recent financial upheavals have exposed the folly of the US Congress and Federal Reserve and will aggravate a cyclical recession and take some time to shake out.

The United States has just retained the riveted interest of the whole world, most of which does not wish it well, in the billion-dollar vulgarity of its election process for an entire year. And it surely has earned the respect of the world in elevating a very capable leader as the first non-white man to head any western nation.

I would be distinctly consolable if the United States really was in decline and I have more legitimate grievances against that country than do The Guardian or the BBC, but it is still a country of incomparable vitality even as its moral, judicial soul atrophies and reeks.

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