Kwame Kilpatrick's commutation met with praise, scorn

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Detroit — Supporters of ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick are celebrating his impending freedom while detractors argue he earned every single day he was sentenced to. 

Kilpatrick, 50, had his prison term commuted by President Donald Trump Wednesday after serving just a quarter of his 28-year federal prison sentence for his role in a racketeering and bribery scheme that rocked Detroit City Hall. 

Trump's decision to commute the disgraced former mayor's term was met with praise from some lawmakers, residents and clergy but scorn from others who decried the long-term damage done to Detroit's reputation.

Kwame Kilpatrick

Warrendale neighborhood resident Veronica Armstead said she expects Kilpatrick will have support from quite a few Detroiters, but she won't be one of them.

Armstead said she didn't vote for Kilpatrick either time he ran for mayor, believing he was too young for the job and unprepared. She doesn't believe he should have been granted a commutation from Trump.

"I don't think seven years is enough time for what he did to this city and the image he brought upon Detroit," she said. "It wasn't right or fair."

She said Kilpatrick's administration was "More about prestige and glorification" than the business of working "To bring the city back to its glory."

Armstead said she understands many in her predominantly Black city will support him because "He's one of us."

Detroit's Warrendale resident Veronica Armstead talks to The Detroit News about one of hundreds of blighted or vacant homes in Warrendale, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. This one, at 8626 Warwick, is one of more than 1000 home that she and her associates have documented. Armstead is president of the Brace Street Block Club and the Warrendale Warriors radio patrol.

"He's just like me. He's an African American. I get that to a point, but I still believe that it's not just about race or gender, it's about the business at hand of doing the job that's necessary," she said. 

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider was critical of the commutation, saying Kilpatrick "Earned every day he served for the horrible crimes he committed against the people of Detroit."

"He is a notorious and unrepentant criminal," Schneider said in a statement. "He remains convicted of 24 felonies. Kilpatrick has served only one-quarter of the sentence that was very appropriately imposed."

Detroit NAACP president and longtime activist Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit on June 26, 2020.

Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of NAACP of Detroit and pastor of Fellowship Chapel on the city's northwest side, told The News Kilpatrick's sentence was excessive.

"I never believed he would serve 28 years," Anthony said. "There are people who have never served, paroled, and pardoned who committed much more criminal activity than what he was convicted of. I'm pleased he did receive the commutation and that's something that should have been done."

During his incarceration, Kilpatrick taught public speaking classes and led Bible study groups with his fellow inmates, the White House said in a statement. Anthony wasn't surprised Kilpatrick wanted to follow God's path.

"When a person is incarcerated, they have ample time to read and Kwame was never accused of being unintelligent, in fact, he's one of the most articulate individuals," Anthony said. "His life will not be the same by virtue of what he's done, but his future has a lot of potential."

More:Federal judge has no regrets about Kilpatrick trial

'Trump got it right'

The announcement Wednesday ends speculation about whether Kilpatrick would be released early due to health problems and COVID-19, and amid a push from supporters, including businessman and Compuware co-founder Peter Karmanos, who lobbied Trump, arguing Kilpatrick did nothing wrong or was unfairly punished.

Karmanos, a Republican, told "The No BS Newshour" podcast last January that the prosecution of Kilpatrick, a Democrat, was a "modern-day lynching."

“Kwame Kilpatrick is a person of great talent who still has much to contribute," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement. "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.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan addresses the media.

Longtime Detroit political consultant Mario Morrow said many will be pleased with Kilpatrick’s release. Others, he said, will feel cheated.

“A lot of people felt that the sentence was steep and that 28 years was a bit much and it was just overkill, compared to other crimes comparable to what Mr. Kilpatrick had done,” he said. “On the flip side of that, there are quite a few people who are not going to be so happy because they felt that he took advantage of the city and he had a great career in front of him and just destroyed it on the backs of the people who needed him more than ever.”

Kilpatrick’s downfall, Morrow said, has had a lengthy, negative impact on his mayoral administration. Some of his close associates remain “Unable to escape that shadow.”

Overall though, Morrow said, “Detroit has moved on and he recognizes that.”

Kilpatrick's pastor in Detroit, Bishop J. Drew Sheard, said he's been a proponent for Kilpatrick for years and has watched him transform his life.

"I was right there when his troubles started coming," said Sheard, who said he's known Kilpatrick for more than 20 years. "We've been in touch ever since he's been in prison. We've talked and have been praying. He's definitely had a change in his life."

Sheard said he spoke with Kilpatrick's sister early Wednesday and the family is overjoyed.

"It's just a total relief and they're exhausted," he said. "I'm praying our community will embrace him and let him know that 'You served your time,' and we're thankful for the president's commutation of his sentence. We're just thankful that he's coming home."

Sheard said Kilpatrick's prison term was overly harsh. 

"I want to be very honest," he said. "I'm not here to go through the whole record of those who have done worse things and got off on lighter sentences. I'm just thankful that God has seen fit to use President Trump to release him from an entirely too long sentence."

Detroit political consultant Adolph Mongo said he wasn't expecting Kilpatrick's release, but was glad to hear it. 

"This is all about the justice system for Black people. There's no question," he said. "I'm glad that he got out."

Added Mongo: "My concern is what about Bobby (Ferguson)."

Ferguson, a contractor, was convicted alongside Kilpatrick following the six-month federal trial. He's serving a 21-year sentence in an Ohio federal prison overrun earlier this year by COVID-19 and is not expected to be released until January 2031.

Longtime Detroit resident Oliver Cole, president of the Grandmont #1 Improvement Association on the city's west side, agreed Kilpatrick's sentence was extensive.

"He's lived two-thirds of his life already, separated from his kids, who are now grown men in college," said Cole, 69. "Has he suffered enough?"

Hopes for a better future

While there has been some pushback over the commutation, Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo of Detroit said it’s not a “disgrace,” but rather “it’s God’s grace.”

“I see great things on the horizon for him and I’m glad today," she said. "This is the capstone of criminal justice reform in Michigan and the country."

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo talks with reporters Wednesday, October 9, 2019, at a press conference about a plan to help Detroiters who owe significant back property taxes to avoid foreclosure.

Gay-Dagnogo said the outcome speaks to the numerous bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts that she and other legislators have taken part in.

“It’s a second chance certainly at redemption and to return to society and be a productive citizen,” she said. “Nobody is saying Kwame didn’t do wrong. He did commit a crime but the crime did not fit the time," she said.

Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, said she spoke with President Donald Trump about Kilpatrick's release last year.

“I’ve always felt that because Mr. Kilpatrick was a Black man, he received an excessive sentence for his crimes,” Whitsett said in a statement. “I believe Kwame has done his time, and I’m very pleased with this outcome.”

Some of Michigan's Congressional delegation expressed disappointment with Trump's decision.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, said he wishes Kilpatrick well, but it's clear the ex-mayor "Did some important things really wrong."

"And I don’t know if he accepts that," Levin told The News on Wednesday. "I am someone who really believes in restorative justice. He’s a very bright guy, he has so much to offer. And like all returning citizens who are coming back from prison, I hope that he finds a really productive place in society."

Congressman Andy Levin addresses community members at a vigil to remember Jimmy Al-Daoud.

Republican Congressman Tim Walberg of Tipton, who served in the state House with Kilpatrick, said he didn't understand Trump's decision.

"He didn't respect responsibilities that Detroit had given him. And I'm not sure what he has done to warrant getting a pardon," Walberg told The News. "I think he has to come back and explain why he felt he could do what he did to the citizens of Detroit, to his oath of office and seek to rebuild himself if he's out."

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said she prays that when Kilpatrick rejoins society he'll have the same love of life he once had and "Do the great things he was created to do."

"Kwame Kilpatrick did some things that were not lawful, but his sentence was too extreme," said Lawrence. "There are people who rape, kill and murder and they don't get as hard of a sentence as Kwame Kilpatrick got. Was he deserving of his sentenced to be shortened? Absolutely." 

Republican Rep. Fred Upton doesn't support any of Trump's commutations.

"It's not right. It sends the wrong signal," said Upton, of St. Joseph. "It's really upsetting."

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, said the former mayor had a lot of support and that Trump is no stranger to Detroit, having traveled to the city prior to his political bid to consider investments in Detroit's casinos. 

"We'll see what Kwame does next," Stevens said. "Obviously, a lot of people advocated for him and that was heard in the executive office."

The Biden administration's nominee for Secretary of Energy, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm speaks at The Queen Theater in Wilmington Del., Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm said Kilpatrick's commutation wasn't unexpected but she was taken aback by the number of people Trump commuted as well as those with corruption-related convictions.

"The bottom line is we're moving forward, turning the page," Granholm said. "I hope everybody who is commuted understands it's a new page and opportunity for them as well, including Kwame Kilpatrick."

cferretti@detroitnews.com 

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