Wagering on the outcome of the Conrad Black fraud trial is a risky proposition, as lawyers representing the former media baron and three co-defendants present widely divergent versions of events in their final statements to the jury.
Judge Amy St. Eve promised jurors at the close of the trial's 14th week on Thursday that they will begin their deliberations sometime in the early part of week 15, cementing her stance in a firm talk with the lawyers in the case.
The prosecution and lawyers for each of the four have taken the better part of a day apiece to present their arguments, trying to cover all the possibilities, it seems.
No one seems to know which way the 15 jurors -- 12 of whom will decide the case with three alternates -- are leaning.
The only opinions that matter are on that jury, Black's co-defendant, veteran Canadian lawyer Peter Atkinson, 60, said a few weeks ago during a break in the proceedings in U.S. District Court.
Black, Atkinson, and two other former executives of Hollinger International Inc. stand accused of defrauding the one-time Chicago-based newspaper publishing giant out of $60 million as they lined their own pockets. All are also charged with tax cheating, and Black is accused of racketeering, obstruction of justice and abuse of company perks.
It seems to me to be a real coin-toss, and when it's a coin-toss it favors the defense because the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is on the prosecution, said Charles Ross, a white collar defense attorney monitoring the trial.
Neither side has given an inch, particularly in describing the so-called non-competition payments taken by the executives as either legitimate, illegal or something else altogether. Such payments are commonly allotted to sellers of assets, either companies or individuals, to prevent them from reentering a market they are exiting.
Prosecutor Julie Ruder described the non-compete payments as tax-free bonuses the executives conspired to award themselves at the expense of Hollinger shareholders -- bypassing Hollinger's board of directors.
The defense described the payments variously as legitimate compensation for not competing with buyers, tax-free bonuses that cost Hollinger nothing, or the inspiration of star witness David Radler, Black's former long-time business partner whose credibility is in question.
Black and Radler, who has pleaded guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence and his testimony, presented a contrasting duo as the two former allies turned enemies faced each other in the wood-paneled federal courtroom: Black, a journalistic wunderkind with a reputation for lavish spending, and Radler, a cost-cutter who viewed newspapers as business assets.
From everything I've been reading, the defense has established reasonable doubt, Rebekah Poston, another white collar defense attorney said, referring to the hurdle faced by U.S. prosecutors.
The question is, will the jury will be persuaded to look at extraneous facts -- that could tip the balance, she said, noting Black's liberal spending of company funds.
KIPNIS AS EXCEPTION?
Chicago attorney Hugh Totten, who defends executives charged with crimes and has observed parts of the trial, said he believes Black co-defendant and former Hollinger general counsel Mark Kipnis will be acquitted, but the others could be found guilty.
Kipnis, the only non-Canadian charged, is accused of facilitating the scheme, but even Radler testified the $150,000 in bonuses the Chicago lawyer got were merely for hard work.
Totten said the other three executives are in trouble for payments received from newspaper deals in which Radler and Black were apparently on both sides of the transactions.
Most damning for Black, 62, who renounced his Canadian citizenship to accept the British title Lord Black of Crossharbour, was videotape from his own company's security cameras showing him hauling boxes of documents out of his Toronto offices with the help of his chauffeur, Totten said. For that he faces an obstruction of justice charge.
Why would a guy who has a mansion, a chauffeur and butlers, drive down in his Bentley and remove boxes himself? Totten said.
If convicted, Black faces many years in prison and millions of dollars in fines and forfeitures.
Hollinger International, meanwhile, has shrunk its holdings and is now called the Sun-Times Media Group.