Two months ago I had a communication from a member of Conrad Black’s defense team. The jury had a few weeks previously convicted him on four of the 13 charges brought against him. Said the lawyer to however many hundred people she addressed: “Over the next few weeks, the court will be pondering the future of Conrad Black. Please write to the judge about him and stress, if you will, what may be the extenuating factors she should consider in meting out sentence.”
That was a painful commission for friends of Conrad Black. It seemed to this friend, as to quite a few others, that he probably was guilty on at least some of the charges. Now, being guilty of fraud and obstruction of justice (i.e., withholding evidence) is not quite the same thing as being Lee Harvey Oswald taking aim at the profile of John F. Kennedy in Dallas at noon on November 22, 1963. And in any case, there were enough complications in this case to allow Black’s lawyers to assert that what he had done was something this side of point-blank crime.
From the first day, Black had said that he didn’t do it and, anyway, if he did, it wasn’t illegal. This is a form of “pleading in the alternative”: John didn’t kill the chicken, killing chickens isn’t illegal, and in any event, here is a chicken alive and well. I cautioned myself, in writing to the judge, not to get into that act. A judge who had sat through a four-month-long trial, listened to learned arguments by the prosecution and the defense as to form and fact, and heard a dozen witnesses testify as to what actually did happen, would be in no mood to be told by a journalist that the whole thing was crapola and maybe she should try out a different profession.
Well, I abided by that counsel, and I have to imagine that other friends of the defendant did the same thing.
But Conrad Black did not. His stand was absolutely consistent from Day One. The charges were foolish, they sought to vest in judicial infamy that which is in the nature of things blameless. Moreover, the people who were contending otherwise were obtuse and vindictive, and should be put away somewhere to prevent the toxification of the common law and the resources of reason on earth.
One came upon friend after friend of the defendant, in the months before sentencing, who, while perhaps permitting themselves a smile of furtive satisfaction over the raw impiety of it all, would agree: Conrad is out of his mind to pursue that line of defense.
On the question we were asked by the defense lawyer to address, Is Black an honorable fellow, responsible for good deeds and benevolent thought? there was among his friends what I would guess was close to unanimity of opinion that Conrad Black has nobly enhanced the human cause.
At this point, heady passions broke into the theater.
What about poor people? What about Canadians? What about — the common man.
It is an adage of life itself that the man who gives away a penny incurs resentment in those who ask why he didn’t give away two pennies. And what about the means by which he achieved his surplus in the first place?
As for his fellow Canadians, when Conrad Black announced that he was willing to surrender his Canadian citizenship in order to abide in London with the Lords of the realm, impulses of resentment were kindled, and from the tumult one could make out the guttural sound of, “What’s wrong with Toronto, my lord?”
This is the moment, perhaps, for a little reflective thought, to the effect that the tragedy is now complete, in the matter of Conrad Black. Only he had the courage and the sweep to throw it all away. Leaving, for his friends, just terrible sadness that it should have come to this.