Friday, November 28, 2008

Conrad Black's Lament

You know, for many years Conrad Black and his wife were positioned to do a lot to bring attention to the flaws in the criminal justice system, the manner in which the cards are stacked against a defendant, the dismal state of prisons and the limited chance that they'll inspire an inmate to reform.... And if they were now addressing the problems from an insider's perspective - an inmate and his wife, waiting on the outside - their words might still have some resonance. But their words are lost in a sea of self-pity.

Here's Conrad Black - "From my cell I scent the reeking soul of US justice ". Oh, smell that smell. No really, it sounds like he's in a rather nice prison:
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.
Black complains,
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.
He seems to have crossed his constitutional protections - the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure with the Fifth Amendment's prohibition on taking private property for public use without just compensation. But he gets at some of the complaints against the system, particularly the manner in which the grand jury has been transformed from what was intended to be a safeguard against prosecutorial abuse, into what often amounts to an investigative arm of the prosecutor's office, to the point that Judge Wachtler's observation that a Grand Jury can be easily persuaded to "indict a ham sandwich" is met not with surprise, but with a shrug.

The problem with Conrad Black's laments is that they turn from broad statement to personal lament. Does he share the experiences of other inmates or their families? People far less fortunate than him, with far fewer resources to throw into their defense? No, and from his tone he probably hasn't even taken the time to ask. It's not even apparent that he regards his broad statements against the justice system as being particularly true or salient, except in relation to his own case and his own circumstances. It's all about him.
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.
Black rattles off these complaints and statistics without relating them to his own case. It wouldn't necessarily be that hard to do - a weakening of civil liberties and protections offered to criminal defendants in the name of looking "tough on crime" or fighting the unwinnable "war on drugs", but alas, Black isn't offering this out of concern for its having been the wrong path to take. Was there any time during his career, when he could have directed scores of investigative reporters to delve into the flaws of the criminal justice system or hired editorial columnists who would have directed scorn and scrutiny at its flaws and excesses, that he had anything to say about these issues? The argument's still about him; he's tossing in the kitchen sink.

A few months back, I read a similar column by Barbara Amiel, Conrad Black's wife. I created a draft blog post, but let it go unpublished.
Writing about Conrad Black's prison sentence, his wife Barbara Amiel has is concerned about the little people:
So what, you ask. What does it matter if one well-off, elderly white woman with too many pairs of expensive shoes now finds her social life largely limited to visiting her dearly missed husband in a US federal correctional institution? Should be interesting material for her as a writer.

But if the rich and well-connected cannot get justice, what chance for anyone else — a question I asked in columns about the law long before I married Conrad. What chance for the orange jump-suited, marginalised young men I saw shuffling in front of the judge in Chicago, silent while their court-appointed attorneys negotiated their freedom away in that tight little legal world, where a client’s fate never disturbs the bonhomie between lawyers.
I would love to see one of those columns... anybody have a piece of yellow, crumbling newsprint where Amiel set aside her typically right-wing views to fret about the quality of criminal defense services?
If ostensibly privileged defendants like us can be baselessly smeared, wrongfully deprived, falsely accused, shamelessly persecuted, innocently convicted and grotesquely punished, it doesn’t take much to figure out what happens to the vulnerable and the powerless: they land, finally, in the 8:45am courtroom parade that takes place all over “America the Free” — the country that “wins” 90% of cases and imprisons more people than any other in the world.
Ostensibly.... That would mean "seemingly" or "apparently". There's no "ostensibly" about it - people with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in wealth are privileged. And Amiel's over-the-top comparisons only serve to highlight how she elevates her own situation over that of the jump-suited little people:
In any event, were I a clothes-crazy predator and were my husband the arrogant and pompous caricature of the books and films depicting him, what then? ... If Dreyfus had been a loud and vulgar Jew instead of an officer and a gentleman, would his case have been any the less important or his persecution less unjust?
I'm sorry - she just compared Conrad Black's conviction to the Dreyfus Affair? No, wait....
Conrad had no idea, and one could not convince him, that he was in Salem, in the middle of an American witch-hunt. There is no defence against false accusations in Salem.
He's a witch being burned at the stake after a trial by ordeal!
I'm not sure that responding to this level of self-pity and self-righteousness serves to advance any cause, and it seems to me that if anything, it's probably counterproductive to Black's cause. Black now makes it clear that he and his wife are on the same page.


  1. Interesting that they offered nothing substantive regarding their case . . . but after all, what's $6M amongst the rich?

    Reading their trip reinforces the feelings that led to my last post about criminal arrogance . . .


  2. It is also of some interest that "rich entitled white collar" criminals (Black, Clemens, etc.) are in line hoping for a pardon from a Republican.

    The cop killers and terrorists (who are geneally not rich and who generally had some motivation other than greed) are lined-up when it is a Democrat. (Of course my recollection is that Clinton pretty much limited his pardons to the rich and connected . . . the politically motivated cop killers stayed in jail . . . )


  3. It is also of some interest that "rich entitled white collar" criminals (Black, Clemens, etc.) are in line hoping for a pardon from a Republican.

    The cop killers and terrorists (who are geneally not rich and who generally had some motivation other than greed) are lined-up when it is a Democrat.

    Is that simply your impression, or is there some data behind that? I hadn't noticed that in practice.

    It does seem that being filthy rich is the best way to get a pardon. Even if you have to change your name to something like Frank Rich (or Richie Rich), to make it particularly obvious how rich you are. The "I'm so rich that my name is Rich" thing seems to have helped inspire Clinton to grant one of the least justifiable pardons I'm aware of.

  4. No stats, just my recollection of various cop killers from AIM, the Black Panthers, Move, etc. all lining up and trying (unsuccessfully) for pardons from Democrats . . . and either not bothering to try (or we just didn't hear about them) from Republicans. (You don't remember the big FBI push to stop the "Pardon Peltier" movement at the end of Clinton's administration? There were similar pushes for some other "lefty" martyrs, none of which went very far . . . )

    Mind you, I'm not disputing that it is the ability to purchase influence that is the ultimate discriminator when it comes to pardons . . . and most everything else in politics.



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