Conrad. Don't go breaking your bail!

Sir Elton John is among 100 of Conrad Black's friends who have written character references to the trial judge ahead of sentencing next week. But can they really help keep him out of jail?
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The Independent US

Sir Elton must have really enjoyed the party. Years after enjoying vintage champagne and exquisite canaps provided by Lord Black of Crossharbour, the singer has written a "thank you" note that could be worth far more than bubbly to the disgraced tycoon.

It might if an American judge is a fan of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road knock years off his hefty jail sentence. If she prefers Napalm Death it could be a disaster, but Elton John is not the only name in Conrad Black's famously exclusive contacts book to have put Mont Blanc pen to lavish paper on his behalf.

More than 100 friends and acquaintances from party friends to political party leaders have been persuaded to write to the Chicago judge Amy St Eve and tell her what a good egg he really is. Yes, the former owner of the Telegraph has been convicted of defrauding the shareholders of his old media empire and obstructing justice. Yes, he faces being sentenced to 24 years in prison next week, but the loyal chums have penned notes the defence lawyers say describe someone "with a deep reservoir of kindness and generosity consistently exhibited to people of all stations in life and an individual who has made significant contributions to society".

Judge St Eve will get a chance to hear him for herself next week when Black takes the stand at last, to make a speech just before sentencing in his long and complicated trial. His advisers have kept him from speaking before now, for fear his arrogance and bombast might not play well with a jury. But now only the judge stands between him and a lifetime in prison. So Black has calculated that he has nothing left to lose in addressing her directly on 10 December and demanding clemency. To say his lawyers are nervous would be understating it.

But at least there are the letters, called in as a humiliating favour to the man who once ruled the party circuit with his socialite wife, Barbara Amiel. The names of those who have come to his aid read like an A-list from the Nineties, when the Blacks vied with Sir Elton to throw the most extravagant bashes.

Lady Annabel Goldsmith, the historian Andrew Roberts, the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore and the US shock jock Rush Limbaugh are also on the eclectic list of supporters, each with their own tale of Black's munificence or magnificence.

William Hague, who recommended Black for his coveted seat in the House of Lords, is there too, as is Boris Johnson, oblivious to the sensitivity of associating with fraudsters, given how close the Conservatives came to proposing Jeffrey Archer as mayor of London. Mr Johnson and the Blacks have a long association: the peer appointed him editor of The Spectator and one of Barbara Amiel's most famous gatherings was a "Boris Johnson Phenomenon" party.

Marshalling such support has been humiliating, says Jeffrey Steinback, the Chicago attorney who will stand in Black's defence and argue for a sentence closer to two-and-a-half years in prison.

"You offer kindnesses to people, just because you want to be kind. You don't expect ever to have to get back to those people to ask them to relay those kindnesses," he said. "That whole process is painful, and it was difficult to get Conrad to go along with it initially."

Black himself is planning to go down with a typical oratorical flourish. While prosecutors are likely to use the peer's unrepentant public remarks against them (he said their case was "hanging like a toilet seat around their necks" and called them "Nazis") to argue for a stiffer sentence, Black will have to be on unusually good behaviour in the stand if he is not to make matters worse.

"It's an important moment," said Mr Steinback. "I hate to say it, but I think it will be more important than anything I have to say. I have had clients before who have gone off the reservation, but I believe that individuals facing sentence have things to say and they ought to say them."