Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose 28-year sentence for corruption shocked many people in the Black community as excessive, is going before a federal appeals court today to argue that he deserves a new trial because his lawyers had a conflict of interest and because mistakes were made during his trial.
Many people used Kilpatrick’s sentence as evidence of the racial bias of the legal system when George Zimmerman was allowed to walk free after killing Trayvon Martin—arguing that the mayor would be spending nearly three decades in prison for stealing money while Zimmerman would get no time for actually taking a life.
Kilpatrick was sentenced in October 2013 after being convicted in March 2013 on 24 charges after a five-month trial. Prosecutors accused Kilpatrick of using the mayor’s office to steer $127 million in contracts to his partner Bobby Ferguson, a contractor and head of Ferguson Enterprises.
Kilpatrick was found guilty on the most serious charges—extortion and racketeering, each of which carried a sentence of up to 20 years.
Ferguson was also found guilty of 11 charges, while the mayor’s father was convicted of filing a false tax return.
Kilpatrick’s tenure as mayor ended abruptly in 2008 amid a sex scandal and allegations of corruption.
“While Ferguson relied on Kilpatrick to back up his threats, Ferguson drove the extortion machine,” prosecutors said in the 30-page sentencing memorandum for Ferguson. “With ruthless abandon, he bullied local businessmen and women, threatening to cancel their contracts and promising to visit financial harm upon them if they did not accede to his demands.”
“Ferguson’s text messages with Kilpatrick revealed that far from promoting other African-American businesses, he actively undermined them, then laughed at their attempts at getting redress from the city administration,” the sentencing memo reads.
Before the three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, attorneys for Kilpatrick and his co-defendant Ferguson each will have 20 minutes for the oral argument. The prosecution will have 40 minutes to present its case.
In his appeal papers, the former mayor charges that the court, for the sake of expediency, denied him his right to fundamental constitutional protections of a fair trial and to representation by attorneys who are effective and free from conflicts of interest. In a statement released by Kilpatrick’s family explaining his position, they claim both of his trial attorneys, James Thomas and Michael Naughton, months before the trial started, joined the law firm—as counsel attorneys—that was suing Kilpatrick in federal court for the same claimed RICO violations on which Thomas and Naughton were defending him in his criminal case.
“It is a conflict of interest when attorneys associated with a law firm sue a client while others defend him on criminal charges for the same alleged acts,” the statement says. “This egregious conflict, of simultaneous representation, caused numerous issues in the criminal trial, which significantly hindered and prejudiced the defense of Mr. Kilpatrick. The trial judge, was made aware of this issue on the record, prior to trial. However, without any investigation of these matters, made a rash decision to continue.”
Kilpatrick also claims that during the trial the prosecutors continually used the testimony of government criminal investigators, who were called to testify 23 times during the trial and give their interpretations of the evidence for the jury, but were never qualified as experts.