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Kilpatrick draws conservative panel in bid for freedom

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s long-shot bid for a new trial rests with an appeals court panel dominated by judges nominated by Republican presidents.

Kilpatrick, the disgraced scion of a once-powerful Democratic family, is trying to vacate his corruption conviction and get a new trial after being sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.

A three-judge panel announced Wednesday it will hear oral arguments Jan. 13 at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The panel includes:

■Judge Eugene Siler Jr., a former federal district court judge who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

■Richard Griffin, a Traverse City native and Western Michigan University undergrad who received his law degree from the University of Michigan. He was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005.

■Helene White, a former Wayne County Circuit Court judge. The former Michigan Appeals Court judge was nominated in 1997 by then-President Clinton, triggering a long partisan battle over judges.

The fight ended in 2008 when the Bush administration agreed to withdraw the nomination of Detroit U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy to the appeals court. Instead, Murphy was nominated to the U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Kilpatrick’s lawyer, Harold Gurewitz, was unconcerned with the judge’s political backgrounds.

“This is about legal issues, not about politics,” Gurewitz said Wednesday. “I look forward to the argument and appreciate the opportunity the court has given us to do this promptly.”

The judges’ ties to Michigan and the Detroit area did not seem significant, Gurewitz added.

The joint appeal with Kilpatrick’s friend and co-defendant, contractor Bobby Ferguson, who was also convicted, largely revives arguments Kilpatrick made during a nearly six-month trial that two of his former defense lawyers had a conflict of interest regarding a former client, Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore, a one-time government witness.

“This is one of those areas where political ideology doesn’t play that much of a role,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “This is a fairly narrow legal issue. Gurewitz is going to argue that whether Kwame is guilty or not, whether you like him or not, the trial never should have happened like this with that lawyer.”

Kilpatrick was found guilty of 24 counts in March 2013, including racketeering conspiracy. The 44-year-old former Detroit mayor is serving a 28-year sentence in an Oklahoma medium-security federal prison.

The 44-year-old former mayor is scheduled to be released on Aug. 1, 2037.

Ferguson, meanwhile, was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison. The 46-year-old is serving his sentence at a South Carolina federal prison.

His lawyer could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Kilpatrick’s lawyers will get 20 minutes to argue in front of the appeals court judges as will Ferguson’s legal team. Prosecutors get 40 minutes.

In his appeal, Kilpatrick argued U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds erred by allowing lay opinion testimony from federal agents. He also said an order for him to pay the Internal Revenue Service and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department more than $4.5 million was not authorized by federal law.

“Kilpatrick was denied a fair trial because the court allowed the two case agents to testify 23 times and ‘spoon feed’ the jury the prosecution theory of the case based on the agents’ review of all the text messages, recorded calls and documents, the jury never had the opportunity to review on their own and to use to draw their own conclusions,” Gurewitz wrote.

At sentencing, Edmunds castigated Kilpatrick for living “larger than life” on millions of dollars he stole after creating a “corrosive pay-to-play” system in city hall.

“I hope that the sentence that I’m about to impose will give that message, that we’re demanding accountability and transparency in our government,” Edmunds said. “That where there has been corruption, there will be no more. We are done.”

Even though he admitted he “really messed up,” Kilpatrick denied the most damning charges: That he operated a complex racketeering enterprise centered on lining the pockets of himself and Ferguson.

Before being sentenced, Kilpatrick apologized for his behavior in general and said he wasn’t a thief.

“I’ve never done that, your honor,” he said.

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