Trump was right to commute former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's sentence

Jan 20, 2021 at 10:17 am
click to enlarge Two peas in a pod. - Evan El-Amin / Patricia Marks /
Evan El-Amin / Patricia Marks /
Two peas in a pod.

Rumors that Donald Trump would set ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick free had cropped up so many times during his term as president that it was starting to feel like the endless hunt for Jimmy Hoffa's body — every so often a headline would dominate the news, only to unceremoniously fizzle out. And with Trump's chaotic nature, there was always some shiny new thing to offer a distraction.

But in his final hours in office, Trump did what President Barack Obama would not do and commuted Kilpatrick's 28-year prison sentence, for which he had served seven years after being convicted in 2013 for corruption crimes including racketeering, bribery, extortion, and fraud. It was part of a last-minute flurry of 73 pardons and 70 commutations, including Trump's former advisor Steve Bannon and rapper Lil' Wayne.

The move may have seemed counterintuitive to plenty. Leaders like Kilpatrick have long been considered a bogeyman for Republicans, proof of the "corrupt Democrats" who run American cities.

Many Democrats, however, praised the move.

"Kwame Kilpatrick is a person of great talent who still has much to contribute," Mayor Mike Duggan wrote on Twitter. "I know how close he is to his three sons and I could not be happier for them being together again. This is a decision President Trump got right."

A movement to #FreeKwame had gained steam in recent years, with local leaders including state Reps. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo and Karen Whitsett of Detroit and businessman Peter Karmanos advocating for his release. A coterie of Kilpatrick's supporters met with Trump, and claims that a commutation was imminent made headlines last year, only for officials to deny it.

Kilpatrick's youngest son, Jonas, even dropped a rap video asking for his father to be released from prison. (Sample lyrics: "It's too much time/ there was no crime ... 28 year injustice/ black fathers sit in cells while their family out on crutches/ rig the system/ and they wonder why we holdin' grudges.")

This paper was among the first to call for Kilpatrick to resign as mayor, doing so in a lengthy 2008 cover story. But in recent years we've wondered if Kilpatrick got a bad rap. For example, Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort was sentenced to only 7.5 in prison for committing financial crimes similar to Kilpatrick's, a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump's connections to Russia. In fact, Kilpatrick's sentence was one of the longest ever handed down by a U.S. Attorney's Office.

There's no doubt race played a role in Kilpatrick and Manafort's differing sentences. A government analysis of prison sentences between 2012 and 2016 found Black men received sentences that were on average nearly 20 percent longer than white men. (Meanwhile, Trump pardoned Manafort on Dec. 23, after he only served a little more than a year of his sentence.)

It's possible that Trump's commutation for Kilpatrick was cynical — in fact, knowing Trump, it's very likely. Trump is no champion of injustice. In its final months, his administration went on a barbaric execution spree, killing 13 inmates with the death penalty — more than three times as many as the federal government had put to death in the previous six decades.

Karmanos, the multimillionaire founder of Compuware and investor in Deadline Detroit, told journalist Charlie LeDuff that he personally forwarded a letter from Kilpatrick to Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In the letter, which Deadline Detroit obtained, Kilpatrick heaped on over-the-top praise for Trump.

"I applaud your boldness and tenacity in confronting the traditional and sometimes deformed politics of our country," Kilpatrick wrote. "You have vociferously exposed the treacherous and calculating schemes of our media and government that have worked to crush families, communities, and even Truth itself. Thank you for standing up, speaking out, and exposing this wickedness."

Karmanos told LeDuff that he believed if Trump set Kilpatrick free before the 2020 election it would have helped him earn votes in Detroit, where Trump wound up earning only 5% of the vote, though that was an increase of the 3% of Detroit votes he earned in 2016.

"I do know that if Trump gave him clemency before the election, where do you think he'd help Trump's campaign at?" Karmanos said. "You don't think he would go to the Black community?"

Under Michigan law, Kilpatrick can't hold state or local public office for 20 years after his conviction, so politics is off the table. He's apparently broke, with $11 million in debt.

Trump officially left the White House on Wednesday to head to his residence in Florida, where it's believed he could start plotting a 2024 return to national politics. Trump also faces a massive mountain of debt — at least $315 million, and possibly $1 billion — some of which he has personally guaranteed.

Trump also faces criminal charges in New York, the result of a probe into his finances stemming in part from his alleged hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. As a sitting president, Trump enjoyed immunity from criminal charges. No longer.

Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and an Obama appointee, believes the probe launched by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York into Trump's dealings resembles the investigation that McQuade and her team of prosecutors led that landed Kilpatrick behind bars. McQuade ensnared Kilpatrick using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, a statute passed in 1970 that made it a crime for a mob boss to direct underlings to commit crimes.

Trump has a special fondness for quid pro quo, so it's possible that there could be room in his grifter enterprise for Detroit's former "Hip-Hop Mayor."

We hope Kilpatrick uses his talents for a more noble cause.

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