Jury selection underway in Conrad Black trial

Jury selection began Wednesday as the high-stakes criminal trial of Conrad Black opened before a packed courtroom in Chicago.

Jury selection began Wednesday as the high-stakes criminal trial of Conrad Black opened before a packed courtroom in Chicago.

Conrad Black departs then federal court building after the first day of jury selection in his fraud and racketeering trial in Chicago, Wednesday, March 14, 2007. Black's trial is getting under way with defense lawyers seeking jurors who won't turn sour over his Park Avenue condo, antique Rolls Royce and expense-account vacation on the Pacific island paradise of Bora Bora. ((Charles Rex Arbogast/ Associated Press))

Black, looking tired and subdued, avoided the media waiting outsidethecourthouseand quietly slipped inside through another entrance.

While he managed to avoid the cameras outside,he talked to reporters inside.

"I'm feeling fine," he said. He wasaccompaniedby his wife, Barbara Amiel, and daughter Alana Black.

In the case of the United States against Black, 12 jurors will be selected from candidates who have already filled out a lengthy questionnaire. Opening arguments aren't expected until Monday.

Lawyers asked one potential jurorwhat she knew about Canada, where Montreal-born Black launched hisnewspaper empire in the 1970s.

"Not much. Socialist country," she said, prompting laughs from Black and theCanadian reporters in the packed courtroom.

"I think corporations think they are above the law," another juror said.

Judge Amy St. Eve questioned potential jurors about their views on a variety of issues likely tocome up during the trial, includingtheirtakeon Canadians, wealthy people and big corporations. She also asked what they'd read or heard about the case in the media.

One potential jurorsaid he thought Black had "something to do with Britain's Royal Family." One female jurorsaid she'd heardthat "his wife was very beautiful and smart."

Defence lawyers Edward Greenspan, left, and Edward M. Genson arrive at Chicago's federal building for jury selection. ((Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press))

With that, Black smiled and looked over atAmiel, who was in the courtroom.

Black, 62, is accused of a variety ofcriminal charges that range from racketeering, to mail fraud and tax evasion.

The main allegation against Black revolves around the U.S. government's assertion that hedefrauded the minority shareholders ofHollinger International of millions of dollars, by illegally diverting money from the sale of Hollinger newspapers.

Denies wrongdoing

Blackhas pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.Three other former Hollinger executives were also charged, and are being tried along with Black.

They are:

  • Former chief financial officer Jack Boultbee.
  • Former vice-president Peter Atkinson.
  • Mark Kipnis, a Chicago lawyer and accountant who resigned from Hollinger in 2003.

But it is a fourth former executive who may cause Black the most difficulty.

David Radler, who was Black's business partner for more than three decades and is the ex-chief operating officer of Hollinger International, is expected to testify against Black. He struck a plea bargain with prosecutors that would see him serve a reduced sentence of 29 months.

The trial, which, the judge warned Wednesday, could last into July,is likely to hear from many prominent individuals. Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger,former Illinois governor James Thompson,and real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump, among others, are possible witnesses.

Black's trial will be closely followed in Canada and Britain, where he took on a larger-than-life presence. His wealth, power, tough business dealings, love for legal battles, and his former ownership of many big newspapers resulted in many appearances on the news, business and society pages.

400 journalistsexpected to attend trial

All major media organizations in Canada have sent reporters to Chicago. The same holds true in Britain, where his long ownership of the Daily Telegraph newspaper made him prime media fodder. The BBC ran anhour-long profile of him on its BBC Two TV channel Tuesday night. More than 400 journalists have registered to attendthe trial.

On the streets of Chicago, on the other hand, Black is almost unknown.

The job of defence lawyer Eddie Greenspan, along with Chicago defence lawyer Edward Genson, will be to convince 12 average Chicagoans that Lord Black of Crossharbour was a victim, not a villain — that Radler's testimony is tainted by his plea deal and therefore should not be believed.

His defence team has already tried to limit references to Black's wealth and lavish lifestyle, knowing that will do nothing to endear their client to a jury likely to be largely middle class. But that will be difficult.

Among the charges Black faces are abusing corporate perks by using a company jet for a private holiday in the South Pacific and spending $50,000 of company funds on a birthday party for Amiel.

It isn't known yet whether Black will take the stand to testify in his own defence.