Paul Johnson

Apologia pro vita sua

Apologia pro vita sua
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A Matter of Principle

Conrad Black

Biteback, pp. 508, £

Any fair-minded person who has looked into the matter knows that Conrad Black was wrongly convicted. Indeed under English law he would not have been prosecuted at all, I believe, and had he been so, the judge would have thrown the case out on the first day on the grounds that the pre-trial publicity had hopelessly prejudiced the case. He would then have jailed some of the hostile commentators until they had purged their contempt. However, it is just as well that Black has decided to describe exactly how and why he was wrongly convicted.

He does so in fascinating detail, and in language which is always lively and sometimes achieves a kind of wild distinction. He has a genuine gift — almost a genius — for multisyllabic abuse. He indulges this Swiftean propensity too often and too brutally — it is arguable that if he had not lambasted his critics quite so ruthlessly he would not have got into serious legal trouble in the first place. But no one can deny  that this is a hugely captivating account of a monstrous miscarriage of justice, and very funny in places. It also has something of the same forensic appeal as Emile Zola’s diatribe J’accuse about the Dreyfus case. At £14.99 it is extraordinarily good value.

In addition to Black’s understand-able desire to set the record straight in his own case, the book has the more important public object of exposing the faults in the American judicial system, which make such a miscarriage possible. I had for some years been worried about the deterioration in the American process of criminal law, and I am gratified, and also profoundly disturbed, to find my misgivings confirmed by this account. The process of decay seems to have begun in the 1970s, but it has reached the point where it now constitutes the most radical weakness in the entire American system and one which must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The fault can be summed up in a sentence: America’s criminal courts now insist on convictions at the expense of any other consideration, above all of justice. They are more like a court martial than a civilian establishment of law. The presumption of innocence has been abandoned. I recall, during my military service, a senior provost martial telling me: ‘If a soldier is court-martialled one must assume he is guilty, otherwise he would not have been charged in the first place.’ That is contrary to all the principles of English justice but it now approximates to the approach of the American prosecuting authorities. The assumption of guilt is sanctified in law by the grotesquely unjust plea-bargaining process, which saves the accused from total financial ruin by forcing him to plead guilty to some of the crimes with which he is charged, however innocent he or she may be. Plea-bargaining in turn leads to a multiplicity of indictments by prosecutors, which adds a judicial to the financial compulsion of the innocent to bargain.

Hence the American prosecution practices are what the law calls ‘a derogation from honest service’. The US prosecution service, in heedless pursuit of convictions, does what it wants and prosecutes whoever it wishes for as long as it likes. Thus, over 90 per cent of prosecutions are successful, a higher proportion than in either Putin’s Russia or Communist China. America, as Black puts it, has become a ‘prosecut-ocracy’.

That being so, it has also necessarily become what he calls a ‘carceral state’, putting behind bars, often for many years, a wholly unacceptable proportion of its own citizens: 750,000 are sent to prison every year, and the number is rising. Over 47 million Americans now have a criminal record. The gap between the United States and other civilised countries has widened enormously in recent years in this respect. The US has five times the population of the United Kingdom but 40 times the number in prison. This fact alone ought to invalidate the monstrously inequable extradition treaty between Britain and the States. It is quite obvious that a person we extradite to America cannot expect the level of justice we take for granted here.

There are other horrifying consequences. For every black who manages to get to college, the state sends three to jail invalidating all the expensive attempts to raise the status of poor minorities. It costs the state $40,000 a year to keep a person in prison, so incarceration alone has rocketed to $250 billion a year. The principal reason for California’s collapse economically is the soaring cost of her criminal and penitentiary system.

The ‘military-industrial complex’ to which Eisenhower drew striking attention in his valedictory address has now been joined by a penitentiary industrial complex, which gives building prisons priority over hospitals and schools. The prison-building lobby is now one of the most powerful in America, and appeals to government by arguing quite cynically that prisons reduce the unemployment figures by 2.5 million a year, and provide jobs for 500,000 prison wardens.

But all this has to be paid for by the taxpayers. This is in addition to the $1 trillion a year the US legal system costs to provide good livings to nearly 50 per cent of the world’s lawyers, who live in the US.

Conrad Black lays bare these ugly facts, and a great deal more, in his account. It should be widely read, especially by the politicians who can influence the extradition arrangements with America. In the process of justifying his business career, and refuting the charges brought against him, Black has written an important book and performed an invaluable public service.