The Kimeses’ 20 Minutes

The first question that 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft put to Sante and Kenneth Kimes on the April 11 broadcast of the CBS newsmagazine did not sound particularly provocative at the time. “It’s very unusual for people charged with murder to sit down and to do an interview before trial,” Mr. Kroft said to his interview subjects. “Why are you doing this?”

More than a week after the interview, which abruptly ended when a member of the legal team, attorney Matthew Weissman, objected to one of Mr. Kroft’s questions (Mr. Kimes had stopped the taping twice before that), a number of prominent criminal defense attorneys are asking a variation of Mr. Kroft’s first query. Namely, why the Kimeses’ legal team, led by Mel Sachs, allowed their clients to be questioned by a major network television magazine before their trial.

The result was “a fiasco,” in the opinion of Les Levine, a private investigator who until earlier this month was the lead investigator for the Kimeses’ lawyers and who appeared on the 60 Minutes segment, which was taped on March 10. (Mr. Levine said he was no longer actively participating in the case, although, he added, “I wouldn’t say I’m off the team.”) “It’s just out of control to put clients who are facing the kind of indictments that the Kimeses are facing in that situation. It was something I was against all along.” He added that the 60 Minutes piece “wasn’t beneficial to the lawyers or the clients.”

Ms. Kimes and her son are expected to go on trial later this year for the alleged murder of millionaire Irene Silverman, who disappeared from her Upper East Side town house (where Mr. Kimes had been a tenant) last summer. Ms. Silverman’s body has yet to be found, but as Mr. Kroft reported on the segment, among the items that were found in the Kimeses’ possession were “Silverman’s passport, her keys, a forged deed to her town house, a stun gun, handcuffs, hypodermic syringes, a knock-out drug and a loaded 9-millimeter pistol.”

Mr. Kimes told Mr. Kroft that the reason he and his mother were doing the interview pretrial “is because of the unfair portrayal that’s been given about us.”

Chimed in Ms. Kimes: “The media has so far portrayed us totally like we are not. We’re just a mother and son.”

Yet, as the Kimeses were trying to show the national television audience that they did not, in real life, look as sinister as the police mug shots of them that have been frequently displayed in the press, Mr. Kroft was bringing up Ms. Kimes’ previous arrest record. (In the 1980′s, for instance, she was convicted of slavery, for holding domestic workers against their will.)

Three times, the Kimeses’ legal battery, who were sitting off camera, put a halt to the questioning. “I mean, you would have to admit you are in one pretty big mess here,” Mr. Kroft said to the Kimeses.

“Not by our choice,” replied Mr. Kimes.

“How did it happen?” Mr. Kroft said

Suddenly the word “Stop!” was heard from off camera and Mr. Kimes replied, “That’s cut .”

Then in voice-over, Mr. Kroft said, “They seem to have gotten into this mess because odd things keep happening to some people who know them, people like Elmer Holmgren.” Mr. Kroft went on to explain that after the Kimes family house in Hawaii was destroyed by fire, Holmgren told Federal agents that he had set the fire for the Kimeses. “But before a case could be brought,” Mr. Kroft continued in voice-over, “Holmgren told his family he was taking a trip to Central America with Sante Kimes and her husband. He was never heard from again.”

The Kimes legal team–including Mr. Sachs, wearing a smile and a bow tie, Mr. Levine, Mr. Weissman and José Muniz–were then shown on camera. “What about Elmer Holmgren?” Mr. Kroft asked.

The Kimeses’ lawyers were silent.

“What about Elmer Holmgren?” Mr. Levine said.

“What happened to him?” said Mr. Kroft.

“I have no idea,” said Mr. Levine.

The reviews were not good, according to some of the city’s most prominent criminal defense lawyers. Gerald Shargel, who has represented John A. Gotti and Charles Hughes–the ousted head of the Board of Education employees’ union Local 372–said he thought the appearance “was a publicity stunt that backfired. The idea of doing a 60 Minutes piece like the lawyers were the directors was nothing short of lunacy.” Mr. Shargel added that “to have those lawyers sitting there like it was the peanut gallery for The Howdy Doody Show was, in my view, bizarre.” (The situation took an even more surreal turn, when in the April 15 edition of the New York Post , Mr. Sachs told columnist Neal Travis that he wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play Kenneth Kimes because Mr. DiCaprio “has the all-American innocence of my client.”)

Jeffrey Lichtman, a former associate of Mr. Shargel’s who went out on his own in January (he still shares office space with Mr. Shargel), said the 60 Minutes interview was “one of the few times that I was ashamed to be a defense lawyer. It was so poorly handled and mismanaged. There was no reason to put them on,” continued Mr. Lichtman, who has represented bank swindler John Ruffo. “You’re having a potential jury pool hear things that they ordinarily would not have heard.”

Judd Burstein, who also once represented Mr. Ruffo, called the segment “a classic example of an attorney apparently being more concerned about getting his puss on TV than acting in the best interests of his clients.” Mr. Burstein said, “Perhaps if it had been an interview by a Nickelodeon TV child interviewer, he might not have anticipated the tough questions.” But given that this was 60 Minutes , Mr. Burstein added, “it was sheer suicide to put his client in that position.”

While the media’s interest in the case was substantial (John Mohan, director of media services for the New York City Department of Correction, estimated that a half-dozen media outlets conducted pre-interviews with the Kimeses before 60 Minutes was selected), the Kimes legal team isn’t exactly in agreement on whose idea it was to put the two on TV. “It’s the Kimeses who wanted to go on television to be heard and seen for who they really are,” said Mr. Sachs. “They felt that it was necessary for them to be able to speak to the American public since there’s been irreparable damage done to them in the media.” When asked if, as one of their lawyers, he did anything to discourage them from doing the interview, Mr. Sachs said, “I did not recommend that they go on television before a [trial]. However, it was their strong desire to want to go on.”

Mr. Weissman, in a separate phone interview, said, “The lawyers did not want to do this piece. We did this piece at the request of our client.”

But Mr. Levine, the investigator, disputed the two lawyers’ accounts. “They were very much in favor of the 60 Minutes piece,” he said. “I’m not saying they were improperly motivated. They thought this would be beneficial. I just disagreed with them.”

The Kimeses’ lawyers claimed that the manner in which the 60 Minutes piece was edited created a “misimpression” of the Kimeses and of their legal team. Mr. Sachs said that at least 30 minutes of an interview between the Kimeses and Mr. Kroft was taped. He estimated that only 15 minutes was shown. Mr. Weissman also contended that they gave “very comprehensive and specific answers” to many questions lobbed at them by 60 Minutes , but that those responses ended up on the cutting room floor. “We still request that 60 Minutes release the interview from beginning to end,” said Mr. Sachs, who also claimed that the newsmagazine had violated an important ground rule that had been set before the taping. According to Mr. Sachs, the ground rule was that if the Kimeses’ lawyers objected to any of Mr. Kroft’s questions, “the question would never be played on the air.” Asked to comment on that, 60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco replied, “We believe we treated them as fair as journalistically possible. The agreement they’re describing to you is not the kind of agreement we had with them. The agreement we had with them is not to get into areas that concerned evidence in the Irene Silverman murder case. They don’t control 60 Minutes ‘ cameras.” In response to Mr. Sachs’ qualms about the editing of the segment, Mr. Tedesco said, “We have a limited amount of time and we, like every news organization, must edit. But in that process we were fair to them. Their main points were in the broadcast.”

Addressing his critics in the legal profession, Mr. Sachs said, “I think it’s important to note that there are lawyers who are making statements without knowing all the circumstances involved.” Mr. Sachs also alleged that Mr. Lichtman and Mr. Shargel have ulterior motives because they were interested in representing his clients.

Mr. Shargel said that while his office may have gotten a call from Ms. Kimes, he never followed up. “The fact is, I never spoke to the Kimeses. I never entertained the idea of representing them, let alone tried to represent them,” he said. “The comments that I made were the comments of a detached observer.”

Mr. Levine told The Transom that Ms. Kimes had reached out to “a dozen or more” other defense attorneys in an effort to bolster her legal team. (Mr. Weissman also concurred that it was Ms. Kimes who had contacted the lawyers and not the other way around.) A source familiar with the Kimes situation said that Mr. Lichtman was approached by the Kimes camp, but decided against representing them, because he concluded that he could not get control of the case. Mr. Lichtman did not deny that he was approached, but he declined to comment on the situation. “Sachs is trying to explain away his incompetence by claiming that everybody is after his media golden goose,” said Mr. Lichtman. “It’s not true. Incompetence is incompetence.”

According to Mr. Sachs and Mr. Weissman, the Kimeses could not be reached for comment by deadline time. Asked how their clients reacted to the TV piece, they gave two different answers. Mr. Sachs said that the Kimeses had seen the segment. “They’re satisfied that they did have an opportunity to speak out,” said Mr. Sachs, although, he added, “they wanted to have the interview broadcast in its entirety.”

Said Mr. Weissman: “They didn’t watch it. To be honest, I don’t believe it was watched.”

Orifice Gets an ‘R’

At the April 19 premiere party for his cinematic cyber opus, eXistenZ , filmmaker David Cronenberg stood in the West 52nd Street bar Float and explained “bioports,” a piece of hardware prominently featured in his film. Bioports are surgically implanted holes at the base of the spine that allow Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law to plug a cord into their backs and enter a virtual reality game called eXistenZ. Oh, and the bioports look just like anuses.

Mr. Cronenberg was initially coy. “In the close-ups, it certainly looks like a bellybutton,” he said. And why are those bioports so close to the butt? “Where do you put it?” he asked. “I think if I were marketing this, I’d say people don’t want it in their heads, or in their faces, because it marks you. A discreet place would be on your spine, just above your belt line.”

But Mr. Cronenberg owned up to some suggestiveness. After all, in one of the steamier moments, Mr. Law plunges his tongue inside Ms. Leigh’s bioport and she squeals. “It’s totally sexual. On one hand, it is sort of logical and rational, and on the other hand, it’s full of sexual juiciness,” Mr. Cronenberg said, warming to his topic. “It doesn’t really look just like an asshole. It has other things going on. I wanted it to be a multipurpose orifice.”

The Transom asked Mr. Cronenberg if he was afraid that the pseudo sex organs might earn eXistenZ an NC-17–his last film, Crash , was an NC-17 flop. “We got the R,” he said. “I think we could have humiliated the M.P.A.A. if they tried to do anything like that. It’s metaphorical sex. In the old days, you would cut away to a steam kettle spouting over. I’m doing the same thing.”

Like that metaphorical scene in which Ms. Leigh licks her finger and slides it into Mr. Law’s bioport? “That was Jennifer’s,” he said. “That was one thing that wasn’t in the script.”

–Andrew Goldman

The Transom Also Hears

… Revelers at the Rainforest Foundation Benefit Dinner say the look on comedian-actor Bill Murray’s face was pretty memorable when he found out that his son Homer Murray, who’s not even 20 according to our calculations, bid $46,000 for a Mercedes SLK hardtop convertible that was being auctioned off for the cause. Pater Murray apparently was away from his table when his boy did all the bidding, and after Dad squeezed back through a cheek-to-jowl crowd at Cipriani 42nd Street that included Sting, Tony Bennett, Charles Aznavour, concert impresario Ron Delsener, restaurateur Drew Nieporent (who’s about to open the Berkeley Bar & Grill in the Sony Building) and Nora Ephron, Mr. Nieporent reportedly shouted to Mr. Murray: “I think you just bought a car.” (A call to Mr. Murray’s agent went unreturned.)

… News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch brusquely shook his head No when we asked him if there was any truth to the rumors that he and his current love interest, Wendy Deng, had gotten engaged. But there were moments when even the poker-faced Australian looked smitten with the elegant shorthaired brunette’s presence at the Literacy Partners’ annual Evening of Readings (and dinner) at Lincoln Center. At the end of the evening, The Transom watched Mr. Murdoch and Ms. Deng hold hands as they left the event and walked virtually alone across the Lincoln Center plaza toward Broadway. Then, still clutching hands, they started scampering across the plaza, like giddy teenagers. Perhaps because Mr. Murdoch is actually 68 years old (Ms. Deng is in her early 30′s), they quickly resumed walking. It was a sight matched only by New York Post associate editor John Podhoretz dancing like our wild Uncle Nick to the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno.”