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 conversations—apparently 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.”
Hardy felt he’d finally worked it all out. Who dared run up against him with Al Sharpton watching his back? Of course, he’d represent the Kimeses. The reverend nodded off. A few weeks later, Hardy contacted his prospective clients. Sante and Kenneth Kimes were eager to meet him, but Hardy delayed the encounter. Instead he sent a young associate, Eric Seifert, to determine “whether they’re crazy, whether it’s legit. What are the legal ups and downs? What are they thinking? Do they have money? The whole nine yards.” His ultimate decision would be based on Seffer’s opinion.
“I knew that he’d give me a good assessment,” Hardy asserts. “I did not want to meet them [because] we deal with a lot of crazy people in this movement, and one of the sad things about practicing law is that people have very little re-gard for lawyers; they love you when it’s to their advantage, and when it’s not to their advantage they’ll look to hurt you.” Seifert, he says, certified that the Kimeses did not appear to be lunatics.
Now Hardy faced the awful task of wresting the case from the Kimeses’ original attorneys. Mrs. Kimes, he says, demanded that he lead the legal team. Hardy would be her Johnnie Cochran, “which meant that Mel Sachs and Jose Muniz, and Matthew Weissman, who have been on the case from day one, had to work under my direction.” Hardy tinkered with the “dynamic” of the impending relationship. “I think there is some resentment,” he now says. “I also think [that] Mel and Matthew and Jose work together all the time, so there’s a little bit of, like, I’m crashing their party.” Nevertheless, Hardy says he understands why his new partners might have reservations about working with him.
“I was a little bit of an enigma,” he declares. “I think they knew me from the press. I don’t want to say that they were intimidated in terms of their legal skills. I think they might have been slightly intimidated or unsure about what the legal-political dynamic would be by my coming into the case. They certainly wanted to get on my good side.” The message Hardy eventually sent to the lawyers was: “I’m running the show, and I’m telling you that straight up. If you ask Sante and Kenny Kimes [they’ll tell you that] I am the lead attorney. If I say, ‘You’re fired!’ and tell the Kimes, ‘Either they go or I go,’ they’re going to go.”
ON A BONE-CHILLING DAY LAST MONTH, MICHAEL Hardy turned his attention to brushing up on his opening statement. It’s all in his head, and he’s asking a Voice reporter to rate it for believability. “I will tell you that our theory is going to be that ‘no crime occurred,’ ” he offers. “Now, you have to put that in context,” he adds. “There is no evidence of foul play against Mrs. Silverman. In some respects, the murder charges are the easiest charges in this case [to disprove]. It’s the confidence game and the fraud, the possession of the deeds from the Silverman home, the alleged forged signatures, the fake IDs—it’s all of that which really raises the challenge in the case.”
On the first day of the trial, Hardy will attempt to define what a con artist is for the jury. He’ll argue that the real double-crossers—the ones “who are building a confidence game”—are the prosecutors. “They are going to try to con you [into thinking] without a shred of evidence that this mother and son committed murder and attempted fraud,” he thunders in his moot court. “In order to get a conviction, you have to fall for the game.” In addition to this defense, Hardy has been creating the Mother of all Exhibit A’s, a chart on which every witness will be asked to check off yes or no to three important questions. Question 1: “Can you tell us right now where Mrs. Silverman is?” A possible follow-up would be: “Can you tell us right now, as you sit on the witness stand, whether or not she was shot, stabbed, or thrown off a bridge?”
In his closing argument, Hardy envisions whipping out the ubiquitous chart once again, then walking over to the jury and declaring: “Here it is! Right here on this chart! Not a single witness can tell you to this day whether they know for a fact if Mrs. Silverman is alive or dead. If she’s dead, where did she die? How did she die? If she’s alive, where is she?” By then, the jury is convinced: It must acquit. Now on to deciding the charge of attempted fraud: “Even though, ladies and gentlemen, you may find that Kenny Kimes may have signed this document and used a different name, it was never used. Therefore there was no crime. I can sit in my home and fill out a passport document or anything under anybody’s name. I could claim ‘I’m Bill Clinton’ and sign Clinton’s name. But if I don’t give that document to anyone, if I don’t send it to anyone, if I don’t use it for anything, then I’ve done nothing wrong.”
IF ONLY IT WERE THAT SIMPLE. WHAT IF THE prosecution is able to come up with an unshakeable accomplice whom it would march into court at the eleventh hour? Forget that Hollywood act, Hardy scoffs. But there are scoundrels slated to come into court and lie on the Kimeses to save their own necks. Stan Patterson, he surmises, might be one of them.
Patterson allegedly was a party to the Kimeses’ confidence schemes. “He knew them when they were in Las Vegas,” Hardy explains. “The federal government flipped him. You gotta remember that the day Sante and Kenny Kimes were arrested, Stan Patterson was in New York City, in federal custody, wearing a bulletproof vest, because he had been busted on a gun-running charge. My guess is that he is going to be the witness who comes forward and testifies, probably that he and the Kimeses discussed killing Mrs. Silverman [or] certainly the scheme to defraud her. He also has to say that he wasn’t in New York when she died.”
If the Kimeses beat the New York murder rap, they still face the death penalty in California. A felony complaint alleges that Kenneth Kimes “personally and intentionally” shot David Kazdin to death in Los Angeles “for financial gain.” Kazdin, 63, was found dead on March 14, 1998, his body dumped into a trash bin. “There is no real evidence against the Kimeses,” Hardy contends. “They allegedly have a snitch named Sean Little who claims that he was with Kenny Kimes when Kenny pulled the trigger that killed that person. Another question is whether Sean Little is also going to come to New York and say that he was present when Mrs. Silverman was murdered, but he can’t remember where they dumped the body. If he knew where he dumped it, they would have the body.”
Additional reporting by Danielle Douglas