DETROIT (WJBK) - No one faults Kim Trent for sticking up for her nephew, but the question is whether she abused her position as an elected member of the Wayne State Board of Governors to help him get a lighter sentence.
Who is Jerome Hamilton? It's a simple enough question, but the answer depends on who you ask.
"The person that I know, and I've known him his entire life, is a person who is warm, who is loving, who is very protective of his sister and brother, a good cousin and nephew," said Trent. "But I also know that that isn't the only Jerome Hamilton who exists."
"He ran an organization that ran drugs in our neighborhoods, commit violent crimes, rob, murder, carjacking, home invasions, you name it - fire bombings," said Jonathan Ortiz, ATF supervisor.
If nothing trumps a mother's love, an aunt's love has got to come pretty close. Known to family members as "Bunch" or "Bunchy," federal prosecutors say Jerome Hamilton is known on the streets of Detroit's west side as "Maniac" or "Staccz."
Born into a loving and politically-connected family, Hamilton launched the Detroit chapter of the notorious Los Angeles-based Crips gang in 2008.
He was only 15 years old. Over the next decade, federal prosecutors say Hamilton "led his gang on a 10-year reign of terror" that "left a sea of victims in its wake."
Among those victims was Catherine Solinski-Blain. Catherine was just 21 years old on Oct. 15 of 2008 when she was shot in the head after locking up the Rib Rack for the night.
Hamilton went on trial three times in that case. He never admitted guilt, until now. We'll come back to that shortly.
"Jerome has made bad choices, terrible choices," Trent said. "And he's going to pay for those choices dearly."
A lot of other people have paid dearly, too. Federal prosecutors say Hamilton and his henchmen participated in drive-by shootings, fire bombings and dealt drugs even when Hamilton was down south attending college.
Last year he agreed to plead guilty to racketeering and carrying a firearm while committing a crime causing death. His sentencing guidelines were 30 to 35 years in prison.
So Trent sent the judge a letter on Wayne State Board of Governor's stationery. She signed it as a member of the board, acknowledging that her nephew made "terrible choices and aligned himself with callous people," seeking mercy.
Elrick: "I think almost anyone who read your letter can understand an aunt, a family member, a loved one writing that kind of letter. I think the question is why do it on Wayne State stationery?"
"I did it for identification purposes, so that the judge would know that I'm a person who I think has credibility," she says.
Trent's letter raises questions about whether she violated the Wayne State Board of Governors' conflict of interest policy in her bid to win leniency for her nephew.
The university's eight board members are not paid for their service, but it's an important job. Voters elect them to serve eight-year terms, trusting the board to set policy and oversee the university.
The board's own rules say members are forbidden from using "their positions ... to receive or provide others with a benefit that is not consistent with the interests of Wayne State university."
Elrick asked an internationally-recognized expert on government ethics to review Trent's letter and Wayne State's policy.
Washington University in St. Louis law professor Kathleen Clark said using the board's letterhead was "absolutely improper."
She says Trent "appears to have used her position to provide someone with a benefit that is not consistent with the interests of Wayne State University."
Trent says she was merely trying to introduce herself to Judge Denise Page Hood.
"I wanted to send a message, that, in addition to being Jerome’s aunt, I'm also a leader," Kim Trent said. "And I'm someone who I hope has some credibility, so she would think this is someone who's responsible who when he gets out of prison, she's giving her word that she's going to be supportive of him."
Elrick: "But doesn't that also indicate that Wayne State is giving its word?"
"I think Judge Hood, who has two Ivy League degrees, whose been a sitting judge for more than 30 years, I think she very much knows that I'm writing that letter on behalf of Kimberly Trent, who is a member of the Wayne State Board of Governors, but not on behalf of Wayne State University," she said.
After Elrick contacted Trent, she asked Wayne State's top lawyer for his opinion.
Attorney Louis Lessem wrote that he found no violation because "state conflict of interest law largely defines conflict in terms of material pecuniary or financial interest."
He continued: "The text of the letter itself ... makes no reference to either Wayne State University or to her position. Apart from the letterhead and the signature block, it would not be possible to know that Ms. Trent had any relationship with Wayne State University."
But the ethics expert was not persuaded.
Professor Clark wrote that Lessem's letter "Reads like it was written by a lawyer attempting to exonerate the trustee rather than a lawyer trying to make sure that his client - the university - is protected from employees who may (unwittingly) exploit the university for their benefit."
Elrick: "Looking at this situation, you could say that you've used your position to gain a benefit for someone who's a murderer, and that doesn't seem to be in the interest of Wayne State University."
"I'm not aware of him being a murder," she said. "That's, you know, that's certainly your interpretation of one of the charges."
While it's true Hamilton was not convicted of murder, he admitted to using a gun while committing a crime causing death as part of his plea deal in the racketeering case.
Elrick: "Do you dispute that there's blood on his hands?"
"What I'm aware of is he's being charged with very heinous crimes, and that he has pled guilty to them," Trent said. "And it's disappointing and hurtful and painful for my family. There are victims on both sides of this terrible circumstance."
One of those victims is Constance Solinski. Catherine Solinski-Blain - the murdered rib rack manager - was her daughter.
Hamilton and two other teenagers were charged with Catherine’s murder. Two of the teens were convicted, but Hamilton beat the rap three times.
His attorneys claimed an "unknown person" shot Catherine, even though the racketeering case had nothing to do with Catherine's murder, Hamilton's plea deal required him to write this letter to Catherine’s parents.
Constance Solinski read the letter aloud: "'I want you to know that I was responsible that there was no unknown person who was involved in your daughter's death.'"
Lawyers and experts are like spouses and the Michigan weather - you can never be sure what they'll say. And if you wait long enough, it may change.
So Elrick asked Ms. Solinski what she thought about Ms. Trent's letter and university policy.
"I thought they couldn't use it for anything personal? That is kind of personal," Solinski said. "She used the university to make him look better."
Elrick: "How do you feel about that?"
"That's disgusting," she said.
It's been a few weeks since Ms. Trent and her relatives left federal court after Jerome Hamilton's sentencing. In the end, he got lucky if you can call getting 30 years in prison lucky.
It could have been worse; Hamilton was facing up to 35 years.
Elrick: "Would you do it again?"
"I don't want anyone to think that I would ever use my influence in an improper way, that wasn't my intent," Trent said. "And if I had it to do all over again, no, I would not have used the letterhead but I certainly would have written a letter. Without a doubt."
Elrick spoke to Sandra Hughes-O'Brien, chairwoman of the Wayne State Board of Governors She said Trent has apologized to the board, saying she was afraid her actions might have "cast a bad light on the institution."
O'Brien says Trent should not have used the board stationery, but she says the board accepted her apology and will move on.