Nearly 8 years ago: Kwame Kilpatrick is convicted on 24 federal felony counts

A look back at the former Detroit mayor’s trial, conviction, appeals

DETROIT - OCTOBER 28: Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick appears in Wayne County Circuit Court for his sentencing October 28, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan. Kilpatrick will spend 4 months in jail as part of a plea deal he accepted back in September in which he plead guilty to two felonies and no contest to a felony assault charge. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images) (Bill Pugliano, 2008 Getty Images)

DETROIT – On March 11, 2013, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted on 24 federal felony counts, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and racketeering.

The jury had deliberated for 14 full days in the corruption trial and announced their verdict that Monday morning. The verdict had been reached the Friday before, but the jury decided to go home and sleep on it over the weekend to see if anyone would change his or her mind by Monday morning.

The jury reached a unanimous decision on 40 of 45 counts. Breaking with typical protocol, the verdict was not read by the jury foreperson. Instead, Judge Nancy Edmunds read the verdicts herself.

Kilpatrick faced 30 counts, but he was found guilty on only 24 counts. There was no consensus on three counts and he was found not guilty on three counts. His former associate, Bobby Ferguson, faced 11 counts and was found guilty on 9 counts, no consensus on one count and not guilty on one count.

Kwame’s father, Bernard Kilpatrick, faced four counts and was found guilty on the sole count of subscribing to a false tax return in 2005 -- Count 38. He was found not guilty on two counts: attempted extortion and a tax charge.

“Not at this time. I don’t have any comment,” Kwame Kilpatrick said to reporters while walking out of court that day.

Kwame Kilpatrick and Bernard Kilpatrick hug in Detroit court on March 11, 2013. (WDIV/Jerry Lemenu)

Bond denied ahead of sentencing

Kwame Kilpatrick and Ferguson were denied bond and ordered to go to prison while they awaited their sentencing. The prosecution argued Ferguson and Kilpatrick were at risk of fleeing. Judge Edmunds agreed.

Edmunds cited two cases that are most closely on point. With respect to Kwame Kilpatrick, the government pointed to a history in state court and access to large amounts of cash and the likelihood of a substantial sentence.

She said Kilpatrick was previously convicted on two felony counts and he showed disregard and contempt to the citizens of Detroit. In response, he noted that he had no such failure to appear in court and has appeared consistently when required to, the judge said.

"It is not unusual for persons to point to pretrial release orders ... ," she said. "Kilpatrick has asserted over and over that he is innocent and will not go to prison. That can no longer be said."

With respect to Ferguson, Edmunds said he had a conviction on assault and that he appeared to have access to plenty of money, though he denied that still existed.

"He has a history of intimidation which is evident in the testimony of officer Fountain and other witnesses whom he wanted to give false testimony to grand jury," the judge said. "I order that Mr. Kilpatrick and Mr. Ferguson be remanded to the U.S. Marshals for detention."

DETROIT, MI, - March 11: Detroit contractor Bobby Ferguson (3rd L) arrives at U.S. District Court to hear the jury's verdict in his public corruption trial March 11, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. Ferguson and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick were convicted on federal racketeering charges. Kilpatrick's father Bernard Kilpatrick, was convicted of submitting a false tax return. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images) (2013 Getty Images)

Edmunds said Bernard Kilpatrick could remain out on bond.

Kwame Kilpatrick spent the months before his sentencing repeatedly asking to be let free from prison. He argued that he was not a flight risk or a danger to the community. Judge Edmunds repeatedly rejected the former mayor’s request for bond as he awaited sentencing.

In June 2013, Kilpatrick was still trying to get out of prison before his sentencing for the federal corruption convictions. He underwent knee surgery that, according to his filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals, had required 90-minute therapy sessions two times a week while he worked to rehabilitate the knee. Kilpatrick said the therapy sessions in prison were not working out.

Sentencing in October

On Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. You can read the courtroom notes from that day here. U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds ordered Kilpatrick to pay $100 for each count immediately -- a total of $2,400. She waived his fines due to his “lack of resources.” Kilpatrick was ordered on Dec. 17, 2013 to pay $4,584,423 in restitution. That number was later lowered to $1,520,653.50 but eventually set at $1,637,087. In 2018, Kilpatrick told the court that he didn’t believe that he should have to pay the restitution because it’s impossible to calculate the amount of money he took from taxpayers.

Right before he was sentenced, Kilpatrick said he was sorry, but denied stealing money from the city.

“I just want people to know that I am incredibly remorseful for the conditions of the city and any role, any part I played in it,” he said. “The government talked about stealing from the city. Wow ... I’ve never done that, your Honor.”

Edmunds recommended that Kilpatrick spend his prison sentence in Texas, where his family was living at the time.

Ferguson was sentenced to 21 years in prison the next day. Prosecutors had been seeking the same term for Ferguson. Judge Edmunds said the evidence showed that Kilpatrick often went to bat for his buddy and punished contractors who didn’t make room for Ferguson on excavation projects. Edmunds said despite the fact that Ferguson was not a public official, he was still a catalyst in the scheme and that he perpetuated an atmosphere of corruption that forced many people out of the city.

Ferguson was ordered to pay $6,284,000 in restitution.

Bernard Kilpatrick was later sentenced to 15 months in prison on a tax crime conviction. Edmunds also ordered Bernard Kilpatrick to pay $62,212 in restitution.

Bernard Kilpatrick, Kwame Kilpatrick's father, is accused of public corruption along with Victor Mercado, his son Kwame and Bobby Ferguson. (WDIV)

Kilpatrick left office in 2008

Before the federal corruption charges and trial ever started, Kwame Kilpatrick quit office in 2008 because of a different scandal involving sexually explicit text messages and an extramarital affair. He ended up pleading guilty to perjury.

Kilpatrick was forced out of office while the auto industry was nearing collapse and Detroit’s unstable finances were deteriorating even more. The city was then run by a state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who took Detroit into Chapter 9 bankruptcy as a last-ditch effort to fix billions of dollars of debt. The city emerged from bankruptcy in 2014.

“Kilpatrick is not the main culprit of the city’s historic bankruptcy, which is the result of larger social and economic forces at work for decades. But his corrupt administration exacerbated the crisis,” federal prosecutors said.

DETROIT, MI- AUGUST 08: Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (R) appears before Judge Thomas Jackson for an emergency appeal heaing in Wayne County Circuit Court August 8, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan. The mayor was ordered to jail August 7th for violating the conditions of his bond. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images) (2008 Getty Images)

Defense attorneys called it a “cheap shot,” noting Kilpatrick had been out of office for five years before the corruption conviction.

“The government’s attempt to roll the city of Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing into the ... case oversimplifies the complex problems that Detroit has faced for more than five decades,” defense attorneys Harold Gurewitz and Margaret Raben wrote.

They asked the court to give some credit to Kilpatrick for the 2006 Super Bowl and 2005 baseball All-Star Game in Detroit, as well as 75 new Downtown Detroit businesses.

Agents who pored over bank accounts and credit cards said Kilpatrick spent $840,000 beyond his salary during his time as mayor. His trial attorney, James Thomas, tried to portray the money as generous gifts from political supporters who opened their wallets for birthdays or holidays. In their sentencing memo, Kilpatrick's lawyers made a point that's commonly argued in cases of high-profile criminals: Our client already has suffered deeply.

Kilpatrick is “infamous, destitute and disgraced,” the attorneys said.

The appeals

Kilpatrick has been fighting his conviction and, more specifically his sentence, ever since. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals denied his original appeal of his conviction and sentence in 2015. He filed another motion in 2017 to vacate his prison sentence, and that was denied by a district court judge.

In 2019, he was denied again by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court said he was looking for a certificate of appealability on his claims that the district court “gave an incorrect jury instruction, that his counsel had a conflict of interest, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because counsel was a necessary witness, that his sentence was incorrectly calculated, and that the district court judge was biased.”

The court does not agree on any counts, and therefore denied this certificate for an appeal. Part of Kilpatrick’s argument that the district court judge was “biased” involved a wedding card. This is from the court filing released Friday:

“Kilpatrick argues that the district court judge should have recused herself because during a pretrial conference Kilpatrick’s attorney said, ‘Thank you for the lovely card for my wedding. My wife and I truly loved it,’ and the district court judge responded with, ‘You are welcome, Jim.’ Because merely sending a wedding card is not ‘of a specifically intimate degree to induce a reasonable person with knowledge of all the facts to conclude that [the judge’s] impartiality could be reasonably questioned,’ this claim does not deserve encouragement to proceed further."

Asking for pardon

In summer 2018, Kilpatrick wrote that he is praying for a pardon from the president of the United States in a blog post on the “Free Kwame Project” website. “I pray that I will receive the opportunity for pardon/clemency from the President of the United States as well,” Kilpatrick wrote.

At the time of his blog post, Kilpatrick had just been moved to a prison in Philadelphia. He wrote that he had been “punished severely."

"I have been chained like a wild animal, shackled around my ankles, waist and wrist.”

He said he was mentally, emotionally and spiritually ready to go home.

"My family has forgiven me," Kilpatrick wrote. "I have asked the people of the city of Detroit for forgiveness many times, and most Detroiters have forgiven me, as well."

He was eventually moved to a low security federal prison in New Jersey. As of this writing he is at Oakdale FCI, a low security federal prison in Louisiana. The 49-year-old inmate’s release date is set for Jan. 18, 2037.

In January 2020, billionaire Peter Karmanos, a long time friend of Kilpatrick, said he was working to get the ex-mayor a presidential pardon. Karmanos spoke on Charlie LeDuff’s podcast, implying that Kilpatrick was a victim of a political conspiracy and that he will use his influence with President Donald Trump to get him freed from prison.

In February 2020, Detroit State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo attended the national African American History celebration at the White House after discussions with President Trump’s team on the Kilpatrick issue. Gay-Dagnogo brought a letter signed by politicians and pastors across the state requesting commutation of sentence.

“None of us are arguing he’s innocent,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “If that was the case we’d be asking for a pardon, we’re not, we realize during his leadership he did some things that were wrong and impacted the city negatively and pretty much scarred us for a very long time. But we also realize this is an act of mercy and a second chance.”

This is the latest attempt to get President Trump to consider it. So far his administration hasn’t dismissed the idea outright.

“The margins are going to be incredibly tight, incredibly close. So if you think of it from this perspective, Trump got 8 percent of the African American vote last time. If he can move that to 9 percent, 10 percent, that is a huge gain in a state like Michigan,” political strategist Dennis Darnoi said.

Kwame Kilpatrick, former Detroit mayor. Kilpatrick's time in office was plagued by numerous scandals and rampant accusations of corruption. He eventually resigning after being charged with ten felony counts and served time in prison. In 2005, (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Trump commutes Kilpatrick’s sentence on final night in White House

Before Trump left the White House on Jan. 20, 2021, he commuted Kilpatrick’s sentence.

Here’s the statement from the White House:

“President Trump commuted the sentence of the former Mayor of Detroit, Kwame Malik Kilpatrick. This commutation is strongly supported by prominent members of the Detroit community, Alveda King, Alice Johnson, Diamond and Silk, Pastor Paula White, Peter Karmanos, Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo of the Michigan House of Representatives, Rep. Karen Whitsett of the Michigan House of Representatives, and more than 30 faith leaders. Mr. Kilpatrick has served approximately 7 years in prison for his role in a racketeering and bribery scheme while he held public office. During his incarceration, Mr. Kilpatrick has taught public speaking classes and has led Bible Study groups with his fellow inmates.”

Trump White House

A commutation simply reduces the sentence of a prisoner, whereas a pardon wipes away the crime.

About the Author:

Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.