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The push to pardon Kwame Kilpatrick

By Bryan 18X Crawford -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Mar 18, 2020 - 3:22:47 PM

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Kwame Kilpatrick’s political career was supposed to be a thing of legend. Something young Black boys and girls in the City of Detroit, the State of Michigan, and across the country could learn about and aspire to imitate. Because of his youth and relatability, Kwame Kilpatrick could very well have been on the same political path as Barack Obama. A young, Black upstart from a major U.S. city with a strong and vibrant Black population. The long-term ramifications of what that could mean for a generation of Black youth in America is awe-inspiring.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is placed in handcuffs at his sentencing hearing in Detroit, May 25, 2010.
“Kwame Kilpatrick was really, the politically elected leader of my generation. He was known as the ‘Hip-Hop Mayor.’ Remember, when he was sworn in as Mayor of Detroit, he was wearing a big, diamond earring. Kwame Kilpatrick really symbolized for us, hope,” Rev. Jamal Bryant of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, told The Final Call.

Before Barack Obama embraced “The Audacity of Hope,” politically speaking, Kwame Kilpatrick walked right into it, and played it out in real life for all the world to see.

In 1996, at just 26 years old, Mr. Kilpatrick was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, filling the seat vacated by his mother, Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, who was making her own run at becoming a Michigan congresswoman. During his time in the State House, Kilpatrick was elected minority floor leader for the Michigan Democratic Party in 1998, and he became the first Black elected official in the state to be elected as house minority leader in 2001.

But the same year, at the age of 31, Kwame Kilpatrick became the youngest mayor ever in Detroit; on the heels of America electing its first ever Black president. It was Black political excellence in the making. But, in what should have been the start of a brilliant career in politics, his time as mayor of Detroit would find Mr. Kilpatrick at the center of multiple scandals, which resulted in him being given a 28-year sentence in federal prison.

He resigned as mayor in 2008 after being convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury and subsequently sentenced to four months in jail. He was released on probation after serving 99 days. In May 2010, Mr. Kilpatrick was sentenced to eighteen months to five years in state prison for violating his probation and served time. Then in March 2013, he was convicted on 24 federal felony counts, wire fraud, including mail fraud and racketeering and in October 2013 was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. Supporters as well as even some of his critics argued the nearly three-decade sentence was unusually harsh.

Now, seven years later, the ex-mayor has become another symbol in Black America.

A disproportionately heavy sentence

“Kwame Kilpatrick now symbolizes for us, the corruption of the American criminal justice system,” said Rev. Bryant, who added, “He has spent seven years in jail, and given more time than some people get for rape or murder. And that’s a tremendous imbalance.”

Many inside the Black community of Detroit are well past the point of debating Kwame Kilpatrick’s guilt or innocence. Were there specific instances where he may have abused his power as mayor of the city with the largest Black population in America? These things are not debatable for some, and still questionable for others. But, a quarter of the way through his sentence, many of Kwame Kilpatrick’s supporters are now raising the question of if the punishment truly fits the crime?

In many ways, Kwame Kilpatrick has become the most notable face in the disproportionate sentencing handed down to Black men in America, and what has proven to be inherent racial bias inside of the criminal justice system. And now, some are even appealing to President Donald Trump to grant him clemency, leading to an early release from his prison sentence.

“There are a number of other high-profile, elected officials who have gotten either a slap on the wrist, or a sentence that was half of Kwame’s, for similar crimes,” Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo of Michigan told The Final Call.

In February of this year, Rep. Gay-Dagnogo hand delivered a letter to the president that was signed by several members of the Detroit caucus, including state Sen. Marshall Bullock, chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, and state Reps. Tenisha Yancey, Wendall Byrd, LaTanya Garrett, Karen Whitsett and Jewell Jones. All joined Rep. Gay-Dagnago in seeking clemency for Kwame Kilpatrick.

“Judges have judicial discretion to levy sentences as harsh as the maximum allowable, the minimum, or somewhere in the middle. So, we see Kwame Kilpatrick as one of the only [politicians] to have received such a harsh sentence,” Rep. Gay-Dagnogo added.

“Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for his crimes. And while there has been a lot of debate about his guilt or innocence, we are arguing neither, rather, we are opposing the excessive nature and length of his sentence,” said Rev. Samuel Tolbert, President of the National Baptist Convention of America.

“While, Mr. Kilpatrick made grave errors in judgment as Mayor, looking at his sentence in comparison to other public officials in public corruption cases who were convicted and sentenced around the same time, you see the unfairness of Mr. Kilpatrick’s sentence: former Governor Rod Blagojevich—sentenced to 14 years, former Governor Bob McDonnell— sentenced to two years, former Congressman William Jefferson—sentenced to 13 years. All of these men are currently home either via the appeals process or because of commutation,” Rev. Tolbert added.

“A few weeks ago, the president granted clemency to a number of elected officials who had similar issues, and in some cases, were accused of much more egregious crimes. The former governor of Illinois, Rod Blogojevich is an example. We know that for the crimes that Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of, 28 years is an injustice,” Rev. Keyon Payton, National Director of Community Outreach and Engagement for The EBONY Foundation, told The Final Call.

The EBONY Foundation partnered with The Bail Project to launch “HOME BY THE HOLIDAY,” an initiative designed to combat mass incarceration and reunite families, in the form of a mass bail out of people who can’t afford to pay for their release from jail. Rev. Payton says because EBONY and Jet magazines both have a history of highlighting social injustices, Black people have suffered over the years. It was important to lend their voice to this call for Kwame Kilpatrick to be granted clemency, as a way to not only help the former mayor, but other Black men and women who are currently incarcerated and awaiting trial.

“As we leverage the EBONY brand to pull together the African-Ameican community around Kwame Kilpatrick’s clemency issue, we’re also raising capital to not only bail out our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, but we’re also doing this in the hope that it would stimulate a national conversation around this type of injustice,” Rev. Payton said, adding, “Even though EBONY is under new ownership, the new owner, his primary goal in acquiring EBONY in 2019, was to place a greater emphasis and focus on social justice; which is why The EBONY Foundation was created.”

A plea for forgiveness and leniency

In 2018, five years into his 28-year sentence, Kwame Kilpatrick officially filed a petition for commutation; or a reduction in his sentence, even though he doesn’t meet the Justice Departments’ clemency standards. Mr. Kilpatrick also sent the president a letter, praising Mr. Trump for his boldness in shaking up the American political structure.

Malik Shabazz, left, and Wanda Redmond, show their support for former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick outside federal court in Detroit, Oct. 10, 2013.

“I applaud your boldness and tenacity in confronting the traditional and sometimes deformed politics of our country,” Mr. Kilpatrick wrote in his 20-page letter to Donald Trump. “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 … Mr. President, I am humbly and respectfully requesting a Commutation of my prison sentence. I am not a danger to society, nor am I prone to ever ‘reoffend.’ I am praying that you will give me the opportunity to be a present father for my children, and soon to be grandchildren.”

For a president who bristles at having to jump through political hoops and hurdles to bring his desires to fruition, one area where Mr. Trump has absolute and unchecked power, is in commuting sentences and granting clemency to whomever he chooses. He is not bound by the guidelines of the Justice Department. As of February of 2020, Mr. Trump has granted 25 pardons and 10 commutations. And once word got out that Kilpatrick was seeking clemency, it sparked a wave of online conversation, and support.

In addition to Rep. Gay-Dagnago and the coalition of pastors appealing to the president for Kilpatrick’s release, billionaire Peter Karmanos has also joined the call. Mr. Karmanos, in an interview, likened the prison sentence handed down the former mayor as a, “modern day lynching.”

Mike Duggan, the current mayor of Detroit, said Kwame Kilpatrick was not only a talented man, but someone who could come back to the inner city and do some good in some of Detroit’s most disadvantaged communities because he feels Kilpatrick still has a lot to contribute to society.

At the root of the letter given to President Trump by Rep. Gay-Dagnago, was to once again, shine a light on the disproportionate sentencing often given to Black men for crimes, and to spark a conversation on the level of racism not only present in the American judicial system, but also in the political structure (particularly the Democratic party), and the court of public opinion.

“The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan has spoken during this presidential election, and the last presidential election, to help Black people open their eyes to how we have been misrepresented and used by both parties. So, don’t be so quick to make an alliance,” Rep. Gay-Dagnago said. “It’s time out for Black people helping people who take, but never invest in Black leadership … There’s some overt racism and practices that exist in our Democratic party.”

Many people inside and outside of the Detroit community don’t see Kwame Kilpatrick as a threat should he be released from prison. They see him as an asset; as someone who may have done some bad things, but who is a good man with a good heart.

“Kwame Kilpatrick is very dear to the City of Detroit, and so is his family. They are a great political family and a great story for our city. And the majority of those in the city of Detroit, don’t feel he was treated fairly,” Student Minister Troy Muhammad of Mosque No. 1 in Detroit, who worked closely with Kwame Kilpatrck during his time as mayor, told The Final Call.

“Of course, we want to see our brother free and given another opportunity. He got time that’s on the equivalent of murderers. We just don’t think that’s fair … I think that the people of the City of Detroit understand the system and how it works against our people. Of course, people want justice and they want what’s fair, but I don’t think anyone expected Mayor Kilpatrick to get the time that he got.”

Min. Muhammad adds of Kilpatrick, “He was very much for the people. When he was mayor, when you walked into city hall, there was a big portrait of him and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. This is the type of man that he was, and he was still a young man at the time who was continuing to grow,” he said.

“The president recently granted clemency to Alice Johnson who was sentenced to a life sentence for cocaine possession. Today, she serves as an advocate for those who are serving unjust and excessive sentences. I feel that Kwame Kilpatrick could be the same kind of advocate if he is freed,” said Rev. Payton. “Now that he’s been in the system, he understands the unfair treatment that African Americans have received in the criminal justice system. I think with his notoriety and fame, he might be able to be one of the leading voices to champion the justice that needs to be achieved with respect to mass incarceration of African Americans,” he added.

“In no uncertain terms would I ever ask Donald Trump for anything. But for my brother, I’d be willing to go to the mat because I think he’s a valuable voice,” Rev. Bryant said, adding, “I really think the Black community needs to have him on this side of the wall.”