A La Jolla lawyer and mail-order minister was sentenced to 190 days in jail Wednesday for arranging a dead man's marriage and then helping the supposed widow collect insurance proceeds and survivor's benefits.
James Kinder, 41, also faces near certain disbarment if his conviction on felony charges of forgery and preparing false documents is upheld on appeal, according to his defense lawyer, Peter Hughes.
Superior Court Judge Barbara Gamer found Kinder guilty on the two counts in a non-jury trial last month. Two counts of perjury related to his handling of another case were dismissed.
Kinder began representing William Bradley in 1978, three years after he began practicing law, according to a pre-sentence report by the county Probation Department.
When Bradley was killed in a car accident in February, 1979, his common-law wife, Patricia Bolden--who was pregnant with Bradley's child--came to Kinder for advice on collecting survivor's benefits.
Much to Bolden's surprise, Kinder told her Bradley had made arrangements before his death for them to be married, the probation report says, recounting evidence from Kinder's trial.
Kinder proceeded to prepare a confidential marriage certificate, backdate it to two days before Bradley's death and forge Bradley's signature. He then signed his own name as a minister of the Universal Life Church, which ordained ministers through the mail and later lost its tax-exempt status as a church.
Using the false marriage document, Kinder obtained $10,000 in death benefits from
Bradley's union and insurance companies, keeping one-third for himself as a legal fee. He also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver of the car involved in the accident that killed Bradley.
Investigators learned of the scam late in 1983, when a disgruntled lawyer quit a job in Kinder's office and reported the deal to prosecutors. They later arranged for Bolden, who was not charged in the case, to secretly tape record a meeting with Kinder at a San Diego restaurant.
On the tape, Kinder told Bolden he arranged the phony marriage "because I need, you need the money. I need it because your kids need the money. I did it because I got some of the money."
At the hearing Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Stahl said Kinder had shown no remorse. "Mr. Kinder saw a fee on the horizon and took the fee and took illegal means to get the fee, because it was the easiest way to get it," Stahl said.
Hughes argued that Kinder was trying to help Bolden, who was pregnant, penniless and had just lost her companion of three years. He conceded that Kinder acted illegally, but noted that the dead man's loved ones received the bulk of his death benefits in any event.
The case would not have been prosecuted seven years after the fact, Hughes argued, but for Kinder's iconoclastic profile.
Friends who wrote letters defending Kinder described him as someone who, in one supporter's words, "walks to the beat of his own drummer." Kinder himself told Deputy Probation Officer Susan Lange that he had been arrested for shoplifting during his student days, had been cynical about the legal system as a young lawyer and had used cocaine, the probation report says.
"If it wasn't for Jim Kinder and the maverick image he created and then followed through on, I seriously question whether we'd be here at all--and certainly whether we'd be here as far as a felony prosecution is concerned," Hughes said.
Stahl said the facts of the case, not Kinder's personality, were the reason for the prosecution.
The marriage scam was not the only time Kinder misrepresented facts in his practice of law, Stahl said. Attempting to reach a settlement in an earlier auto accident involving Bradley, Kinder wrote an insurance company a month after Bradley's death and pretended his client was still alive, Stahl said.
He also cited the allegations of the dismissed charges, in which Kinder was accused of lying in a sworn statement to persuade a judge to allow him to appeal an arbitration decision after the time for filing the appeal had expired. Stahl said Kinder also attempted to deceive judges at the county Traffic Court last summer.
Kinder, a graduate of the Western State University law school, did not speak on his own behalf at the hearing Wednesday. According to the probation report, he earlier had told Lange: "I was a good lawyer. My life is over. I helped a lot of people. I gave a lot of guidance and hope to people who were in trouble."
Besides 190 days in custody, Gamer ordered Kinder to pay $10,000 in restitution and placed him on probation for five years.
"I don't believe Mr. Kinder's maverick image is the reason he's here," Gamer said. "I do believe Mr. Kinder as a lawyer is held to a high standard. By his actions, he's disgraced himself and he's also disgraced his profession."
Under recently tightened lawyer discipline rules, the conviction must be reported to the State Bar of California within two days, according to Ann Charles, a Bar spokeswoman. The state Supreme Court could immediately suspend Kinder's license to practice law. He then would face a Bar hearing on his disbarment or summary disbarment by the court.