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Michael Hardy and the Reverend Al Sharpton rocked back in their first-class seats on a flight to St. Louis last summer. For several weeks, Hardy, the attorney who represented Sharpton in the raucous Tawana Brawley libel case, had been thinking about the latest challenge the civil rights leader dumped in his lap. A self-described "grunt," Hardy did not know what to make of it. "Rev," he said, nudging the nodding preacher awake, "you know that the Kimeses are reaching out to me and I really don't want to make a final decision [until] I get your input."
Sharpton paused. In the 30 years he has been advocating the civil rights of African Americans, the reverend rarely has come out in defense of "white rage." Last October, Sharpton loudly articulated the Ku Klux Klan's constitutional right to wear their hoods and hold a rally in Manhattan. In 1998, he testified on behalf of a white police officer who had been suspended from the NYPD for appearing in blackface and an Afro wig on a parade float mocking the lynching of a black man by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. And in 1992, Sharpton begged a judge to hand down a lenient sentence to the white would-be assassin who had plunged a steak knife into his chest during a protest march through the predominantly Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst. Not once did Sharpton waffle when moral suasion seemed to clash with political correctness.
Then, last year. An emotional letter he received from accused killer Sante Kimes forced him to reexamine the meaning of civil rights and whether notorious defendants like Sante, 64, and her son Kenneth, 23, should benefit from the impact his puissant advocacy has on New York's criminal justice system. Like Hardy, Sharpton was perplexed when an aide, Moses Stewart, presented him with Mrs. Kimes's letter. In it, Stewart recalls, the so-called grifter complained that she and her son had been falsely accused of murder and extortion and that prosecutors violated their civil rights by cooking up false fraud charges to keep them locked up until police could firmly link them to the disappearance of wealthy Manhattan widow Irene Silverman. Would Reverend Sharpton pick up her cause?
The Kimeses were arrested in New York on July 5, 1998, on a Utah warrant alleging that they passed a bad $14,000 check to buy a Lincoln Town Car. In the meantime, police learned that Mrs. Silverman, 82, who rented a $6000-a-month apartment to the Kimeses in her Upper East Side mansion, had vanished. Sante Kimes and her son became suspects in the Silverman case after police found Mrs. Silverman's personal and financial documents in the Kimeses' car. Police also found a forged deed that purported to transfer Mrs. Silverman's mansion to the Kimeses for a fraction of its $4 million-plus worth. In the car, police found loaded .9-mm and .22-caliber pistols, wigs and masks, plastic handcuffs, $30,000 in cash, an empty stun gun box, a pink liquid that they said was similar to a "date rape" drug, and cassettes of Mrs. Silverman's telephone conversationsapparently taken from wiretaps. Police noted that the Kimeses also are suspected in the 1996 disappearance of a banker in the Bahamas and in the disappearance of a drifter who was working with them.
Sharpton referred the case to Hardy (jury selection started last week), leaving unanswered ticklish questions the lawyer now was flinging back at him at 30,000 feet. Should Hardy get involved with the Kimeses? What would be the political fallout for Sharpton in an unusually vicious election season in which guilt by association could make or break a campaign? Sharp- ton counseled his friend and confidant about "growth": Look how far New York's once untouchable black activist has come.
"We basically talked about the pros and cons of it," remembers Hardy. The attorney worked hard at syncing his views with those of his mentor, but, in the end, he was swayed by his own rhetoric. "I said, 'Rev, you know a lot of times when we get hired by whites, it's because they see their cases as "civil rights cases" or there's some public advantage to having "a black attorney," ' " Hardy postulated. "I mean, this is two wealthy whites who have a colored history. They have a team of lawyers. Mel Sachs! A well-known attorney. And now they are reaching out to me."
As the debate grew more passionate, Hardy invoked one final argument he hoped would eliminate any lingering doubts. "Why can't this black man represent these white folk?" he asked. "Indeed, I have some nationalist tendencies, but I'm not a nationalist in terms of my racial politics. You know my partners are white. I have whites that work for me. I have blacks that work for me.' "
"In a way," Hardy reflects, "we both came to the conclusion that if I did the case it would be a crossover type case." He remembers Sharpton telling him that "it would be the type of case where you can let it be known that you are an attorney, and a good attorney, not just a 'black attorney.' " According to Hardy, "Rev did not see any problems in terms of himself. If I were to take the case, he did not see any conflict of interest issues hurting him politically."