December 11, 2007 / 9:45 PM / 10 years ago

Conrad Black to keep fighting to avoid prison

<p>Conrad Black leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after his sentencing hearing in Chicago, December 10, 2007.John Gress</p>

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Fallen press baron Conrad Black has said he can survive the hard transition from a life of glamour and luxury to one of anonymity and menial prison labor, but he intends to go down fighting to overturn his guilty verdict.

"He's said he's innocent and we're going to the court of appeals to try to overturn this verdict," Black's Canadian lawyer Edward Greenspan said after U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve pronounced sentence on Monday.

A smile stole across Black's face as he strode away through the courthouse lobby and his lawyers said relief had replaced nervousness after his sentencing, but legal analysts differed as to whether 6-1/2 years was lenient, severe or just right.

"America is looking to make an example of senior directors and while Conrad Black's sentence was not harsh, it certainly was not lenient either," said Simon Bevan, a leading fraud investigator in London, where Black once ran the Daily Telegraph group of newspapers.

"He deserves every day he serves," said an editorial in one of Black's former flagship papers, the Chicago Sun-Times. "The Sun-Times suffered for years while Black conspired with former Sun-Times' publisher David Radler in their money-bleeding schemes."

Legal analysts also differed on Black's chances of reversing the jury's guilty verdict that he obstructed justice and defrauded shareholders of Hollinger International Inc, the former media giant he built and then dismantled.

Black, 63, has not wavered from his long-held stance that he is completely innocent, even in his remarks to the judge before his sentencing, and the judge said he had not accepted his guilt.

"We have the verdict we have and we can't retry the case," Black told the judge before she sentenced him to 6-1/2 years and ordered him to repay $6.1 million stolen from Hollinger in the scheme.

The judge permitted Black to remain free on bond pending his surrender March 3, but did not indicate whether she would allow him to remain free while his appeal is considered.

Black's lawyers must show they have a reasonable chance of succeeding for him to avoid prison during his appeal.

The appeal will likely take a year, and is expected to focus on the obstruction count in which Black was videotaped removing 13 boxes of documents from his Toronto offices in violation of a Canadian court order, legal analysts said.

Another issue that could be raised on appeal was the judge's instruction to the jury that Black could be convicted for knowing about the fraud but doing nothing about it.

The appeal may also argue that Radler, the prosecution's star witness, should have been ordered to mount the witness stand a second time to testify about what he knew about his own likely sentence.

Radler, a Canadian citizen, in his plea agreement won agreement from prosecutors not to oppose his request that he serve his time in Canada, where he would likely spend less than a year in prison since parole is more lenient there than in the United States.

Black -- who gave up his Canadian citizenship to become a member of the British House of Lords -- must under U.S. rules serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, unless he petitions successfully to be transferred to an English prison. His wife, Barbara Amiel, prefers to live in England.

In a recent interview with the Toronto Star over dinner at a posh restaurant near his Palm Beach, Florida, mansion, Black again argued his innocence, saying he was told by colleagues, even as he collected checks worth millions of dollars, that "everything was fine."

"I would rather go to prison for life rather than plead guilty to something I didn't do," he told the Star.

The judge allowed Black to keep the Florida mansion, which prosecutors sought to seize -- but he probably would be unable to return to it after serving his sentence because, as a non-U.S. citizen, he will likely be deported.

If Black does have to report to prison, his lawyers requested that it be the facility in Coleman in central Florida.

If assigned there by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he would join 2,000 inmates who sleep behind razor wire in barracks, rising at 6 a.m. and going to sleep at 11 p.m.

"Jobs would be anything from scrubbing floors or toilets, to cutting the grass and kitchen jobs -- any task that needs to be done is inmate work," Bureau of Prisons spokesman Mike Truman said.

Pay starts at 12 cents an hour, the spending limit in the prison commissary is $290 a month, telephone time is limited to 300 minutes a month, there is no Internet access, and the prison library is very modest, he said.

Though Black's lawyers said he was not defiant in his remarks to the judge, only straightforward, he has said in earlier interviews that prison would be "endurable," that he would write a book about his travails, and that he would return to work in finance.

Editing by Gary Hill

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