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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Conrad Black's criminal fraud trial went to the jury on Wednesday after nearly 15 weeks of testimony during which the former media baron and his three co-defendants were called both corporate thieves and victims of a run-amok government prosecution.
Judge Amy St. Eve of the U.S. District Court handed the case to the 12 men and women who will decide the fate of Black and the others after both sides made final pleas over the course of more than six days. The jury began deliberating immediately.
There was no clue as to which way the jury was leaning after hearing from about 50 witnesses in a case involving complex business transactions that prosecutors say amounted to common thievery.
Defense lawyers have contended the government produced a proven liar as its star witness and was guilty of over-reaching in pursuing Black, singling him out because of his wealth and power.
The judge read the jurors lengthy instructions before sending them off to deliberate.
Just before that, chief prosecutor Eric Sussman told the panel that Black and his co-defendants are "sunk" if jurors believe the testimony against them.
"Follow the money," he urged them.
"The important question to ask is 'the why' of these payments, not whether they were or weren't disclosed," Sussman said of the millions of dollars in non-competition payments that the government claims Black and the others stole.
"Mr. Black is saying the 'why' is because the buyers demanded it," he said. "The buyers requested it. It's the company's money. That's what they are taking."
The non-compete payments flowed from the sale of hundreds of newspapers and other media properties that Black's one-time publishing empire, Hollinger International Inc., began selling in 2000 to pay off bank debt.
Buyers make such payments to insure that sellers -- in this case Black and his associates -- will not reenter a media market with a new rival publication once they have left it.
Prosecutors have claimed during the trial that some of the payments were not really necessary and that in any case they should have gone to Hollinger International for the benefit of shareholders instead of going to Black and his associates, in effect, as tax free bonuses.
Sussman urged the jurors not to pay heed to defense lawyers' contentions that some witnesses lied or were not credible.
"They (the defense) have to question the credibility of the government," he said. "Because if what you are getting from the (witness) stand is what it appears to be then they are sunk. They are sunk."
Before the case went to the jury the government dropped one count of filing false corporate tax returns against Black co-defendant Peter Atkinson, former vice president and general counsel for Hollinger International. That left Atkinson still facing seven counts of fraud and one count of false corporate tax filing.
Black, a 62-year-old member of Britain's House of Lords, and the others are accused of pilfering $60 million in non-compete payments.
Black, Atkinson, former Hollinger chief financial officer Jack Boultbee and former Hollinger lawyer Mark Kipnis are all charged with mail and wire fraud and filing false corporate tax returns.
Black is also charged with obstruction of justice and racketeering, and, along with Boultbee, with additional wire fraud counts for abusing corporate perks.
Black was ousted as chairman of Hollinger International in 2003 after shareholders questioned the non-compete payment deals. In 2004 an internal investigation concluded that he and other executives presided over a "corporate kleptocracy" at Hollinger, once one of the world's largest newspaper publishers.
Black faces the stiffest penalties if convicted -- decades in prison and the forfeiture of millions of dollars.
Hollinger International is now called the Sun-Times Media Group.