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'It could have been a lot worse'

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

All things considered, Conrad Black walked away from a Chicago courtroom yesterday with a deal that should have him heaving a sigh of relief, legal experts say.

Judge Amy St. Eve's 6½-year sentence for the former media baron is much lighter than what prosecutors had been pushing for and he is free until March 3, at which time he must surrender himself to a low-security prison, probably in Florida.

"Getting sentenced to jail is never a good day, but I think ultimately, Conrad Black will look back on this day as a victory for him. It could have been a lot worse," said Chicago lawyer Hugh Totten, who has been following the case closely.

"He ended up getting a very conscientious judge who, I think, imposed a just sentence that related to the evidence and has a deterrent value - which is what criminal law is supposed to be about - but wasn't so over-the-top as to be almost unrelated to the crime."

Lord Black's offences carried a 35-year maximum and prosecutors were calling for a sentence of 19 to 24 years as recently as last weekend, according to another Chicago lawyer, Andrew Stoltmann.

A "double-digit" sentence would have meant serving his sentence at a higher-security facility.

"I don't think there are any stats on this, but I don't think British lords do too well in medium- and maximum-security prisons," Mr. Stoltmann said, adding the sentence could have also been as short as two or three years.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, agreed. But he said that while Judge St. Eve had a lot of flexibility and discretion to exercise, "that district, the U.S. Attorney's Office there, is very tough and vigorous in its pursuit of this kind of activity," limiting how lenient the judge could be.

Rebekah Poston, a white-collar criminal defence lawyer and former prosecutor in Miami, said Judge St. Eve wasn't easily swayed by the prosecution's tough sentence recommendations, but didn't let Lord Black off too easily either.

"She knew where to cut away the fat and she knew where to keep focused," Ms. Poston said.

In their court filings, however, Lord Black's lawyers maintained their client was a minor player in the scam and argued that he should receive no more than the 29 months his former lieutenant, David Radler, is expected to receive in a plea bargain for his role as the government's star witness.

Chicago's Mr. Totten disagreed. "The point is that Radler did end up co-operating and the general rule is that you get a 50-per-cent cut if you co-operate," he said. "Plus, Radler was not convicted of obstruction, so the math works out."

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