by Bill Haltom
Last Saturday, the THHJM family lost a very dear and special member, Kemper Durand.
Kemper was one of those extraordinary souls who always exuded joy and happiness, even in stressful times. He enjoyed life immensely and lived it with intensity. He adored his wife, Lillian, his sons, Jennings and Bartlett, and his grandchildren.
He also loved the Green Bay Packers, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Sunday New York Times, bird-watching, jazz, chicory coffee, and lunches with friends at the Little Tea Shop.
And, of course, he loved the law. He was a criminal defense lawyer and proud of it. He was a fan of John Mortimer’s fictional British Barrister, Horace Rumpole. In the PBS television series, Rumpole of the Bailey (which Kemper enjoyed immensely), Rumpole would defend all sorts and conditions, including rich businessmen charged with fraud or poor street folks charged with petty crimes. Some were innocent, and some were guilty as sin, but Rumpole delighted in being the voice for them all.
Kemper was an American Rumpole of the Bailey. He delighted in being an advocate for unattractive people and unpopular causes.
Kemper was a tenacious advocate. But he was unfailingly professional and civil. In an era when the law is plagued by too many mean-spirited litigators, Kemper never took a cheap shot at opposing counsel. He was always the consummate professional, and accordingly, judges and juries loved him. Former Federal Prosecutor Tim Dicenza said of him, “We were adversaries in the courtroom, and allies outside the court.”
There are many stories to share about this remarkable man and his wonderful life, but for me, three illustrate the type of lawyer and man that he was.
The first involved Kemper’s defense of an innocent man, Clark McMillan. For over 22 years, Mr. McMillan resided in a Tennessee prison, serving a sentence for the hideous crime of rape. Clark McMillan kept telling anyone who would listen to him that he was an innocent man. The problem, of course, was that no one would listen to him. But through something called the “Innocence Project,” Clark McMillan found a lawyer named Kemper Durand.
Kemper listened to Clark McMillan. He listened, and he believed him. And Kemper not only listened to Clark McMillan. He took him on as a pro bono client. Kemper worked for months on behalf of his client. Finally, Kemper found the DNA evidence that proved Clark McMillan had never committed the crime for which he had been convicted. Kemper had the conviction set aside, and on a warm spring day, Clark McMillan walked out of prison, a free man with his friend and lawyer, Kemper Durand, at his side.
The second story involves two young men who, unlike Clark McMillan, were not innocent. They were guilty of the crime of accosting and kidnapping a man. And that man was Kemper.
One night several years ago, Kemper was leaving his office to head for home. As he was about to get in his car, he was accosted by two men, one of whom held a gun at Kemper’s face and demanded his car keys. Kemper handed the keys over, and then at gunpoint, he was forced inside the trunk of his car.
For the next several hours, Kemper was trapped in the cold darkness of his car trunk as the two men drove the car throughout the city. From time to time, the car would stop. The men would open the trunk, pull Kemper out, make him withdraw money from an ATM machine, and hand it over.
After several hours of this ordeal, Kemper was standing at gun point alongside yet another ATM machine when he noticed a security guard. Kemper yelled for help. His assailants fled, but were captured and arrested.
Both men were tried and found guilty. At the sentencing hearing for one of the two men, a well-known lawyer appeared in the courtroom. It was Kemper. He told the judge he wanted to testify. Kemper took the stand, and testified that the man who was about to be sentenced was not the man who accosted him at gun point on that fateful evening. Yes, the man had been there and could certainly be considered an accomplice, but as Kemper saw it, the man was at the wrong place with the wrong person at the wrong time. Kemper then further described how during those hours he spent in the trunk of his car, he heard the two men talking. The man who was now about to be sentenced had pleaded with his friend to “stop the car, let this man out, give him his keys, and go!”
Forever the effective criminal defense lawyer, Kemper portrayed the man before the judge as an unwilling accomplice. He asked that the judge give him the most lenient sentence possible. The judge agreed.
It was a rare case in which the victim became the advocate for one of his assailants.
The final story is about one of Kemper’s many acts of kindness. One day not long ago, Kemper and I were headed to lunch at the Little Tea Shop. We were approached by a homeless man who asked us if we could “help (him) get something to eat.”
I was ready to direct him to Calvary Church or the Memphis Union Mission. And then I heard Kemper’s wonderful voice proclaim, “Sir, your timing is impeccable! My colleague, Mr. Haltom, and I are about to enjoy a wonderful lunch here at the Little Tea Shop. Would you please join us?”
The homeless man looked startled by Kemper,s hospitality. He hesitated for a moment and then mumbled, “I guess so.”
Kemper then escorted the homeless man and me through the doors of the Little Tea Shop. A few of the patrons glanced at the homeless man and no doubt wondered how he had stumbled into a restaurant frequented every day by judges, lawyers, and successful business people. But all the regulars at the Little Tea Shop knew Kemper, and they quickly realized that the homeless man was Kemper’s guest.
The three of us were seated. Kemper assisted the homeless man in ordering his lunch. A wonderful meal was soon delivered, and the three of us broke bread together. Kemper tried to engage the homeless man in conversation. The man was obviously hungry and did not say much. But Kemper talked with him and treated him as if they were old classmates from Yale.
That day, Kemper did not just give the homeless man a nice lunch. He gave him dignity. He gave him respect.
Kemper treated all of us that way, whether we were his fellow lawyers, friends, or clients. Whether we were innocent, guilty, or a little bit of both, Kemper always gave each of us respect, kindness and grace.