Arizona courtroom icon Mike Kimerer remembered fondly
Debra Milke had been in custody for 10 years when she wrote a letter that gave back her life.
It was 1999, and Milke was one of two women on Arizona’s death row at Perryville Prison.
“I was so desperate for help. And I was scared, because they wanted to kill me,” she told me over the phone this week. “Lots of people in prison say they’re innocent, but I really am.”
She had a subscription to The Arizona Republic, and, as prisoners do, she read about criminal cases and the lawyers who handled them. Three names came up frequently: Larry Hammond, Larry Debus and Michael Kimerer.
Kimerer had just been appointed to a commission on the death penalty, so she decided to write him.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
“I’m not sure you’re aware of my case,” she started.
To her surprise, Kimerer wrote back.
“Yes, I’m aware of your case,” he responded.
Of course he was aware of her case. Everyone was. It had been notorious front-page news, a mother convicted of having her four-year-old son murdered in the desert by two acquaintances the child thought were taking him to the mall to see Santa Claus.
Milke denied having anything to do with the killing. She claimed that the man in whose house she and her son were living while hiding from her abusive husband had taken it upon himself and enlisted a friend to help carry it out.
All three were sentenced to death.
Kimerer took the case, and he performed miracles. Milke’s conviction was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013 because of police and prosecutor misconduct, and she was released on bond. Two years later, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that she could not be retried because of double jeopardy.
That wasn’t the end of their relationship. Milke had nowhere to go, so Kimerer hired her to work in his law office, and she stayed there for the next five years.
“He was a savior to me,” Milke said.
An era is gone
Mike Kimerer died June 15 of complications of diabetes and chronic kidney disease at the age of 82. His friends, Larry Hammond and Larry Debus — whom Milke came to know — also died in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It’s like an era is gone,” Milke said.
Kimerer was widely respected as an attorney and as a person.
“He was one of the most caring, insightful human beings I’ve ever known,” said Lori Voepel, an attorney who worked with him on high-profile cases, including the Milke case, for 27 years.
“He found something redeemable in every person who came to him for help,” she said.
Kimerer co-founded Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, sat on the boards of nearly every local and national legal organization and was appointed to countless commissions.
And in the minds of the Phoenix law community, he was among the last of a generation of lawyer gods.
“Each of them, they went into battle with their skills, but they always respected the judges and the other side,” said former Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ron Reinstein. “That was a time when you went into battle in court and could still have a beer together afterward.
A bear of a man
I first met Kimerer in 2008, at an execution, of all places. He represented condemned murderer Robert Comer, who had killed a man in 1987, kidnapped two others and raped one of them at a campsite on Four Peaks, northeast of Phoenix, that iconic mountain depicted on Arizona state license plates.
But this time, Kimerer was not trying to save a life, he was helping a prisoner end his own life. Comer had volunteered for execution because he was tired of living in custody. And he needed an attorney to argue to the court that he was competent to make that decision.
Kimerer supported his client until the end, watching the execution from the death-house viewing gallery where Comer could see him. Comer’s last words, “Go Raiders,” were directed to Kimerer.
After that, over the years, I consulted Kimerer on many cases I covered as court reporter at The Republic.
Kimerer was a large man, and he moved carefully, like a St. Bernard dog aware of his size in relation to others. He had an ever-graying beard and a deep melodic voice that he kept low and calm.
“He was a bear of a man, a fierce fighter, but with a gentle, teddy-bear heart,” said Voepel.
Kimerer also was a very private man. He didn’t talk about himself. None of his friends I spoke with even knew how he died. They only knew he had been ill. He refused a public funeral.
He didn’t tell war stories about his career. Instead, he listened to others talk, and he understood. More than one person I talked to for this story cried.
“He was willing to get into the ring and fight until the final round,” said Larry Kazan, a prominent Valley defense attorney. “The community lost a fine attorney.”
A raw time in Phoenix
Kimerer was born into a pioneer family in Northern California. His father was a farmer and his mother was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee. He was enchanted by stories, listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio as a child, his son, Kirk, told the Arizona Mirror.
He considered being an actor. Instead, he studied psychology, first at Chico State University, where he met his first wife, and then at the University of California, Davis, where he later attended law school.
When he passed the Bar, he moved to Phoenix and got a job at the law firm Lewis & Roca, specifically to work with a high-profile attorney named John Flynn. Flynn had represented a famous land swindler named Ned Warren and a Phoenix thug named Ernesto Miranda, whose U.S. Supreme Court case gave us the arrest warning that starts, “You have the right to remain silent…”
Within a few years, Flynn and Kimerer split off on their own law firm, along with another Flynn acolyte named Clark Derrick. Kimerer and Derrick remained law partners for 47 years.
Phoenix was a smaller and rawer place in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was run by land developers and real estate agents. And it seemed that everyone was from somewhere else and ashamed of it, on the run from a business failure or a bankruptcy, a bad marriage or a criminal record.
Kimerer liked the grunge. He would frequent the bars near his office on Clarendon Street — not far from where The Republic reporter, Don Bolles, was murdered by a car bomb in 1976 — like the Ivanhoe and the Playboy Club. He also frequented The Jockey Club at Central and Camelback, once the setting for the Terry McMillan novel, Waiting to Exhale, now the site of a family restaurant franchise.
Derrick said that Kimerer was fascinated by the conmen and thieves that hung out at those clubs, something that Kimerer’s son, Kirk, confirmed.
“He wasn’t part of it, but he lived in that world,” Kirk said.
He would rattle off names of slick and shady characters he knew, Kirk said, and occasionally helped them out of legal jams.
Kimerer also wasn’t afraid to throw a punch to break up a fist fight.
“He came home once with a busted lip, and said, ‘That was the dumbest thing I ever did,’” Kirk remembers.
But that life caught up with him.
In the mid-1980s, Kirk said, Kimerer checked into rehab.
He never drank again.
A high-profile career
He had his share of high-profile cases.
In 1999, Kimerer and Lori Voepel defended Scott Falater, who, two years earlier, had stabbed his wife 44 times and then drowned her in their backyard swimming pool. His defense was that he was sleepwalking at the time and had no recollection of committing the crime.
“What this man did was so out of character,” Voepel said. The experts she and Kimerer contacted and contracted believed Falater’s story.
But they were up against Maricopa County Deputy County Attorney Juan Martinez, an expert at ridiculing expert witnesses. (Twenty years later, Martinez would surrender his law license rather than go before a disciplinary hearing because of his alleged misconduct in the Jodi Arias case and others.)
It was not long after the O.J. Simpson case, Voepel remembers, and jurors were leary of anything that smelled of snake oil and mirrors. Falater was convicted of first-degree murder.
“That loss, unlike any other, really hit Mike hard,” Voepel said.
Reinstein, who was the judge in the case, thought that the jury believed the sleepwalking story, but only to a point. Then Reinstein sentenced Falater to life in prison, instead of death, at the request of the victim’s family.
Voepel and Kimerer began work on the Milke appeals in 2000, and to this day, Milke does not know how — or if — they were paid for their work. Her mother, who was German, dealt with Kimerer directly. She created a defense fund and toured Europe raising money, making Milke a celebrity there.
“We wrote off a lot,” Voepel said. “A lot of it was pro bono.” Eventually, a federal judge assigned them to the case as public defenders.
The appeal rested on prosecutor misconduct. A Phoenix police detective with a “talent” for extracting confessions, even from unconscious perps on hospital gurneys, claimed that Milke had confessed to him. But there were no witnesses, no tape recordings, and the prosecution had failed to reveal prior complaints and sanctions for lying against the detective.
Voepel argued the case before the 9th Circuit. In 2013, that court threw out the conviction and the sentence and remanded the case to Maricopa County Superior Court. Then-Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery assiduously pursued a retrial on the murder charge. And as the new case dragged on, Kimerer and Voepel convinced a judge to allow Milke out on bail. She was free for the first time in a quarter century.
It was a shock to her system. One day shortly after her release, I ran into her and Kimerer while waiting for an elevator in the courthouse. The doors opened, and Milke scooted to the other side and pressed her back against the far wall in terror.
Some time later, she described to me how hard it was to overcome the agoraphobia after her time in solitary while on death row. She likened it to “being locked in your bathroom for 24 years.”
Kimerer filed a special action in the Arizona Court of Appeals to try to stop the retrial, and in 2015, that court ruled Milke could not be retried because of double jeopardy.
Kimerer offered her a job in his law office, where she answered phones and did bookkeeping. She stayed there until the pandemic, when the office shut down and Kimerer could no longer afford to keep her.
Crossing the Bar
Kimerer kept working, though his health was failing. He downsized his office several times, and finally decided to work out of his house in Paradise Valley. His son, Kirk, and his wife and kids moved in with him to help care for him as he became more ill. And when doctors realized there was nothing more to do, Kimerer stopped treatment and opted for hospice care.
On June 14, the night before he died, Kirk and his family gathered at his father’s bed to pray.
Kirk read him a poem that Kimerer had read to his own father on his deathbed: “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.