THE CANADIAN PRESS — CHICAGO - Conrad Black's ailing wife keeled over in shock Friday as the disgraced former media baron, his impassioned plea for leniency falling on deaf ears, was ordered by a U.S. judge to serve several more months behind bars.
Already looking frail and gaunt, 70-year-old Barbara Amiel toppled into the laps of the startled courtroom spectators alongside her when Justice Amy St. Eve — the same Chicago judge who originally sentenced Black in 2007 — passed judgment.
"You are a different person today," conceded St. Eve, who sentenced Black to 78 months in prison in 2007 but was required to revise the sentence after an appeals court tossed out two of his fraud convictions last year.
"I still scratch my head as to why you engaged in this conduct," she said. "Good luck to you."
The stunning decision was preceded by the spectacle of Black, Canada's former champion of blue-blooded bombast, humbly professing to having changed his ways and asking St. Eve to show his long-suffering family some mercy.
"My concern is not for myself ... but for those dearest to me," Black said.
"Your Honour, because I do not speak of it much, you must not believe my family and I have not suffered deeply in the past eight years."
Having already spent 29 months in jail, and with additional credit for good behaviour, Black is now expected to spend between eight and 13 more months behind bars. He can appeal the ruling, but it was unclear Friday whether he would.
After the sentence was delivered, Black conferred with his lawyers, seemingly oblivious to his wife's condition. With the help of two handlers, the conscious but dishevelled Amiel walked out of the courtroom, stumbling on her snakeskin pumps as she left.
The couple later emerged from the courthouse — Amiel stood upright but walked slowly, while Black, his arm around her, kept his head held high and his words to himself — before climbing into the back seat of a waiting car.
Black and his lawyers agreed he would surrender himself to prison authorities in about six weeks. Once he has served his prison term, he will never be allowed back into the U.S.
When the convicted man spoke, it was vintage Black — a forceful, eloquent address, showcasing his expansive vocabulary and fondness for literary allusion — as he argued that he's a changed man and that his family had suffered enough.
He expressed regret that Hollinger shareholders, most of them not as wealthy "as I used to be in those days," had been harmed by his "mistakes."
"I do not resent the penalties I have paid," he said. "It is right, or in any case inevitable, that people do pay for their mistakes."
He quoted Mark Twain in defending himself, saying, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its trousers on."
Black spoke more slowly when detailing the challenges his family has faced since accusations of fraud and corporate misdeeds were levelled at him eight years ago, first by shareholders of his companies and later by the U.S. government.
He reminded the judge of the cash settlement, announced on the eve of his trial, in his libel suit aimed at former Hollinger executives and their adviser Richard Breeden, whose corruption report "tainted the wells of public opinion" and sparked his legal woes.
Lawyers for the new company, Chicago Sun-Times Media Group, deny they are paying him a penny for defamation.
Earlier, Black's lawyers warned that the former publishing magnate's health problems could worsen if he's sent back to prison.
Black has already served enough time, and demonstrated good behaviour during the 29 months he spent behind bars in Florida before being released on appeal last year, they said, noting that Black's co-defendants, convicted alongside him nearly four years ago, all served lesser sentences.
Black, 66, was convicted of three counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice by a Chicago jury in 2007 in a four-month trial that focused on the complaints of shareholders who said they'd been swindled out of $6.1 million.
He was sentenced to 78 months in jail, but served just over a third of that time.
He was released on bail last summer after 29 months in prison after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found a number of flaws in the "honest services" statute that was used to convict him.
His fraud charges were sent to a lower court for re-examination, but the more serious obstruction of justice charge — laid after jurors saw a video of Black carrying boxes out of his Toronto office — was not affected by the high court's decision.
In handing down the reduced sentence, St. Eve said she weighed factors like Black's age, health and positive impact on other inmates against the seriousness of his crimes and the need to send a message to other would-be white collar criminals.
Black's efforts as an educator at the prison in Coleman, Fla.,"were nothing less than extraordinary," argued lawyer Carolyn Gurland, noting he maintained a positive attitude "despite the enormity of the suffering that he endured."
Lawyer Miguel Estrada said his client showed grace under pressure during his time at the central Florida prison, which largely houses violent criminals and drug offenders.
"It is not typical of what people found guilty of this sort of crime have to endure," Estrada said.
Black suffers from high blood pressure and high cholesterol — conditions that aren't monitored well in jail — and has recently been diagnosed with skin cancer, his lawyers said. Prison is no place for a man of his age and in his condition, they argued.
Eric Sussman, a former U.S. prosecutor in Black's original trial said he wasn't surprised St. Eve decided on a reduced sentence.
"She explained it pretty well in terms of taking into consideration both the seriousness of the conduct, as well as his personal circumstances — what he's done in prison, his family circumstances, his age."
"I think she reached an appropriate compromise."
Chicago lawyer Hugh Totten who sat in on the hearing said didn't envy St. Eve's in deciding to send Black back to jail given how he and his family have been affected by his time there.
"At the end of the day I felt sorry not only for Conrad Black and his wife, but I also felt sorry for the federal judge because it's very, very difficult to sentence someone in this type of case."
By Sunny Freeman, The Canadian Press