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How Much Justice Could Conrad Black Afford?

Conrad Black was originally accused of stealing $400 million from his companies. Prosecutors charged him with the theft of $80 million, then reduced the charge to $60 million. After the jury found him not guilty of 9 out of 13 charges, it was even less. After the U.S. Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals got involved, only two questionable charges were left, amounting to about $285,000 in fraud. He paid $32 million in restitution, reports the Wall Street Journal.

All of that is last year's news. What's new for the newspaper magnate is that he was recently released from prison and wants the last two charges cleared. Why? The right to an attorney of one's choice, of course.

The original charges included multiple counts of fraud that enabled the government to seize his assets. He argues that without his full funds available until after the trial, he was denied his right to counsel, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. He was acquitted of all of the counts that supported the asset forfeiture.

He makes an intriguing argument.

If the government can seize a person's assets before trial, preventing him from hiring the attorney of his choice, and presumably forcing him to use a lesser attorney, they can stack the deck against the defendant, even if the forfeiture charges are later dismissed by the judge or jury, as happened in this case. The classic question of "how much justice can you afford?" seems to be apt here.

On the other hand, does it amount to a Constitutional violation? Proving ineffective assistance of counsel is incredibly difficult. Law students are inundated with tales of attorneys falling asleep at trial, showing up after a couple of lunchtime beers, and committing other acts that common sense tells us would impede their ability to be effective. None of those cases were overturned on ineffective assistance of counsel grounds.

Though Conrad Black's legal victories came post-trial through various appeals, when he presumably had different counsel than his original trial, there has been no indication that his attorney's conduct rose to the level of ineffective assistance.

Then again, ineffective assistance of counsel is not exactly the same thing as the right to counsel of one's choice. The arguments in his case should be fascinating, especially if the trial level judge refuses to vacate the two remaining charges and Black has to appeal.

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