He was a soft-spoken podiatrist who retained the gentle accents of his Georgia upbringing, and it was that voice Kinley W. Howard used yesterday to tell a federal judge that he did not rob his late aunt's estate of more than $200,000 and that he didn't intend anything wrong by forging his dying mother's name on check after check.
"There was no trickery, no scheme, and God knows there was no criminal intent," he said, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit during his sentencing before U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Washington.
But Walton said the evidence and a jury verdict -- guilty on three counts of mail and wire fraud -- showed something else, and he dismissed Howard's claims of innocence.
"As you live, you see how corrupting money can be . . . and it's sad when people let money and things put their integrity, their reputation and entire life at stake," Walton said. "And I'm absolutely convinced that you . . . decided you would commit this criminal act."
Walton sentenced Howard, 53, of Panama City, Fla., to the maximum sentence of 46 months in prison, fined him $20,000 and ordered him to pay $156,000 in restitution to his estranged relatives. Walton ruled that Howard did inherit a share of his late aunt's estate and did not have to repay that amount.
The sentencing ended years of financial intrigue that followed the death in July 1996 of Mildred Powell, Howard's aunt, who lived in an apartment house in Northwest Washington.
Although Powell wrote two wills, she did not sign either. Under the law, that meant her estate should have been divided among her six heirs by the probate division of D.C. Superior Court. But Howard, who often visited Powell when he served in the Army Reserve at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, testified during his trial in September that he thought that the split was wrong. He said he believed his aunt wanted him to have all the money.
Evidence submitted during the trial showed that Howard searched the deceased woman's apartment and hid bank balances from other relatives. When his brother discovered $50,000 in savings bonds made out to Powell's nieces, Howard illegally had the bonds deposited in his aunt's estate, prosecutors said.
He then had himself declared co-personal representative of the estate, along with his mother, who was in a Tennessee nursing home. On financial papers submitted to the court, he said Powell died with only $29,000.
According to evidence presented by prosecutors at trial, Howard forged his mother's signature on documents and checks flowing from the estate. He listed her as residing at his home in Florida.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Judith Kozlowski and Linda Otani McKinney showed at trial that even after his mother died, Howard continued to forge her signature on checks for more than $70,000, making payments on beachfront property and his Piper Aztec airplane.
Howard, who asked Walton to release him immediately because the food and cigarette smoke at the jail was bad for his health, said he would appeal the decision.
"I was following my mother's request," he told the judge before he was led away by a U.S. marshal.