Kevin Harden stands with college freshmen at the Community College of Philadelphia after speaking at a commencement program.

Kevin Harden stands with college freshmen at the Community College of Philadelphia after speaking at a commencement program.

Provided by Kevin Harden

Kevin Harden Jr., Philly gun violence and the making of a star attorney

A product of the city’s criminal justice system now heads a group of rising black lawyers. And he’s just getting started.

Kevin Harden, Jr. flexed the fingers on his left hand, clad in a clean-pressed suit bearing a Kutztown University lapel pin. The 31-year-old white collar criminal defense attorney, 15 stories above street level in a Center City office, was lamenting that he still can’t make a fist with that hand. “I was so angry at myself,” he said, staring at one of the five places on his body where he was shot in 2006. It was at Myers Recreation Center at 58th and Kingsessing, and he distinctly remembers his decision to haul ass out of Philly after 16 hours at the University of Pennsylvania hospital.

Harden was OK. Then 20, he didn’t need surgery. He didn’t even feel the need to confront the guy who shot him. Maybe he just needed a change.

That gun battle 10 years ago came before law school, before the job with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, before he became president of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, representing black attorneys. It was before he successfully helped implement gun deterrence programming in one of Philly’s roughest neighborhoods and before he got a prestigious job as a white collar criminal defense attorney at a national law firm.

That day, though, was after so much else. Harden grew up in West Philly with a mother in and out of sobriety and a father holding odd jobs to make ends meet. Kevin, the oldest of five, had real potential — everyone saw that — but still got kicked out of Central High before his senior year. He started selling drugs. He was arrested a handful of times, but entered programs that helped him get his record expunged.

He took that perspective to the Office of the District Attorney. Few prosecutors can say they really know what it’s like to be a defendant in a drug case. He’s also taken it to the Barristers’ and other leadership roles he fills outside of his day job at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC.

It almost wasn’t like this.

“Had I gotten the punishments for the crimes that I had committed while I was in college, I would still be in prison right now,” he said. “And I’m the president of the Barristers’ Association.”

***

Harden knew gun violence intimately by sixth grade. The death. The despair. The mothers crying and the Rest In Peace T-shirts. He drew on this knowledge as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia between 2010 and 2014. He knew where defendants and victims were coming from. And sometimes, he didn’t feel so bad putting someone who could have been himself in prison.

“If you’ve gotten to the point where the hopelessness or the slow suicide is your method of operating in the streets, you need a break,” he said.

So while many of his colleagues learned about the cultures they were prosecuting for the first time when they walked in the door at the DA’s office, he could be the guy who could take a step back from what a person was accused of doing and understand “that they have multitudes.” He never wanted to look at a person and see them as an “other.” He aimed for intense impartiality. Everyone he prosecuted was human. It wasn’t about railroading them.

Work became an escape. For several years, he handled cases involving young children and abuse. And it made him grateful for the parents he did have. They had their issues, sure, but they loved him.

He also saw the injustices ingrained in a criminal justice system that has caught up so many young black men. It’s why he cried after some of his verdicts — the cases he won.

“I considered every one of my cases to be as somber as a funeral,” he said. “Getting justice was just the period on a sentence that had already been written.”

***

When Harden was in middle school, he wrote an essay that won him a trip to Space Camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He had everything ready to go, and got a camera to document the trip. It was during “one of those sparkling times” when his mother was sober. She got caught up in crack cocaine in the late 1980s, and these times came and went.

When Harden returned from Space Camp, his mother was in an abusive relationship with a guy. And Harden never got his pictures developed.

“I’ll always remember that,” he said. “I went on this like, amazing trip. What kid from my neighborhood got to go to Space Camp? And I don’t have a picture from it.” But, he said, “that’s part of my experience.”

He and his siblings didn’t consider things like that to be bad. Just part of life. If you get dejected about it, you can’t get up in the morning for work or school. So best just to move on — sometimes even laugh about it. That’s how they dealt with everything.

Kevin Harden, far right, sits with his younger siblings as a child.

Kevin Harden, far right, sits with his younger siblings as a child.

Provided by Kevin Harden

Like so many others, the family had a system for when the utilities got shut off because a bill didn’t get paid. Though their father was always working multiple jobs in fast food or maintenance, Kevin would head to a neighbor’s house. His brothers might have gone to a friends’. They knew which family had a really big washing machine, so they could go there if they needed to wash their clothes.

And yes, he laughs about it today. He did even then.

“In my neighborhood, it’s not shameful,” he said. “Everybody had those sort of circumstances.”

Harden’s mother was smart — he gets his sarcasm from her. His father, Kevin Harden Sr., went into the Navy after high school and was dishonorably discharged. He came home and was convicted of a felony, the equivalent of what Harden calls “an economic death sentence.” His mother died in 2007, and his father shortly after in 2009.

The rock of the family was his paternal grandmother, who pushed him to study hard and show up to school. She died of esophageal cancer when Harden was in seventh grade. Before the eighth grade, he hadn’t missed a day of school.

By eighth grade though, he was out of control.

Kevin Harden at his eight grade graduation with father, mother and grandfather.

Kevin Harden at his eight grade graduation with father, mother and grandfather.

Provided by Kevin Harden

Though he got into Central High — that “school on the hill” — he got kicked out after three years when his grades started to slip. He transferred to Bartram High School for his senior year — the same school his mother transferred to after she was kicked out of Girls’ High.

In order to graduate from Bartram, Harden had to take the SATs and apply to college. He applied to one: Kutztown University. He won a full scholarship for his academics.

Today, he sits on its Alumni Board of Directors.

***

Both of Harden’s parents were sick during his first two years in college. He was angry at the world, and he and his friends were “miscreants.”

He spent much of those two years back and forth between Kutztown and Philly, selling drugs, getting arrested for marijuana and crack and being admitted into programs that helped him move on. Harden was a smart dealer. He still remembers thinking after he got arrested that if he did a cost-benefit analysis, he should continue selling drugs.

Harden saw his two young brothers following in his footsteps, themselves losing control. It was time for a change.

He complained to his case manager that Kutztown — where he went in undecided and eventually switched to criminal justice — was just boring. His case manager told him to get involved with something. Anything that would take up time and keep him out of the system.

Kevin Harden, center, stands with his father and three of his siblings after graduating from Kutztown University.

Kevin Harden, center, stands with his father and three of his siblings after graduating from Kutztown University.

Provided by Kevin Harden

The Black Student Union on campus had a budget to throw parties and hire DJs and hold events, so Harden got involved and eventually became the vice president of the organization. Things were starting to turn around.

Then he got shot.

He was back in Philly on Jan. 15, 2006 at the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center at 58th Street and Kingsessing Avenue. There was an altercation involving his younger brother, and Harden, unarmed at the time, was shot in a gun battle that broke out in the facility. He was hit in his shoulder, chest, thigh, calf and left hand. A friend dragged him to safety, and the shooting continued for another minute or two after Harden was shot.

He never saw the man who shot him. All he knows is the guy’s now in prison for shooting someone else, too.

Harden was cleared by the police after the shooting, left the hospital and went to Kutztown. He was immobile. By the third day after the shooting, he went from a size 10 shoe to a size 13 because everything was so swollen. Muscles in his legs were torn by a bullet.

A month later, College Republicans on Kutztown’s campus held what they called an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” — one where white customers paid $1, black men paid 25 cents and black women could get a cookie for free. Racial tensions were high after the incident, black women reported being harassed and catcalled, and the school held what it was calling an educational forum on Affirmative Action.

Harden was still the VP of the Black Student Union, and spoke at the event. And he told the administration the forum was one of the most racist things he’d ever been a part of.

“Don’t you dare tell me about affirmative action. I know what affirmative action is,” Harden recalled saying at the time. “I’m telling you: What are you going to do about this hostile learning environment?”

Kevin Harden, then a college student, speaks at a forum on race relations at Kutztown University.

Kevin Harden, then a college students, speaks at a forum on race relations at Kutztown University.

Provided by Kevin Harden

After that experience, people started asking Harden if he’d ever considered law school. He had. When he was involved in the criminal justice system, he actually really liked court, even though his only experience with it was as a defendant. In some ways, he idolized lawyers.

So Harden went to Temple University’s law school. He finished on the Dean’s List in his last semester.

***

Harden’s been practicing Taekwondo since he was a kid. He saw a neighborhood pal jump on a bed and do a kick, and he was hooked. By 1999, he was competing nationally, and by 2001 he was ranked and on an international karate team. As recently as 2015, Harden was ranked the in the top five semi-professional kickboxers in the country. It was never a career. But always something he’s done, and done well.

Once, when Harden was working as an ADA assigned to juvenile and child abuse cases, he needed an 8-year-old boy who was also into martial arts to testify. So Harden promised that if he testified, he’d show him his uniform and videos of him fighting. It worked. Today, the young man’s in high school. And Harden’s seen him at a karate tournament.

Things didn’t come easy at the Office of the District Attorney though, at least not internally. Harden moved around a lot from assignment to assignment, which is normal. He started off in municipal court, then moved to the juvenile unit, then he was sent to South Philadelphia, starting with petty crimes and working his way up to major ones. While stationed there, he was also an attorney assigned to the room where defendants had their blood drawn following DUIs. He oversaw that scientific process, and was one of the only ADAs who knew how.

But Harden faced intense scrutiny. In 2011, according to Daily News archives, one of his fellow ADAs resigned after using the office’s programs to look up Harden’s expunged past. Another prosecutor anonymously told the Daily News they were concerned with Harden’s past, including a 2007 interview he did with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. A camera crew was in town one day when Harden was in college, and they so happened to ask Harden’s barber if he knew anyone who could speak about what it’s like growing up in their community. Harden, being the outspoken young man he was, volunteered. He told the truth: People in his community don’t see snitching as an option.

“The cops can’t take care of me. I snitch on that man, and somebody come after my family. Then everybody going to be dead. The streets can handle themselves. Survival of the fittest,” he told the cameras.

In 2013, Harden was the subject of yet another Daily News story. But this time it was about an argument he got in at the Mad Mex in University City. Witnesses said he punched a guy. Harden insists now that it was a stupid argument, and no punches were thrown. He was never charged, but there were still questions: Did he get special treatment from the police because he was a prosecutor? And, once again, his past arrests were mentioned.

His close friends said he’s always had his skeptics.

“There are lots of people who have doubted him over the years,” said Amber Racine, a close friend and a past president of the Barristers’ Association. “And I think he’s going to continue to prove those people wrong.”

Still, he was holding his own at the DA’s office. He handled his first jury trial just eight months after arriving; it was in late August and too many others were on vacation. He tried some two dozen jury trials by the time he was done.

Then, in April 2013, Harden was assigned to a new Focused Deterrence task force — a group of officials brought together by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office who were implementing a new strategy to decrease gun violence in South Philadelphia.

Focused Deterrence was hailed as one of the reasons Philadelphia’s homicide rate reached a 47-year-low in 2014. The program identified and brought in individuals in South Philly who were most likely to use a gun or most likely to be shot by one, and it intervened early, aiming to prevent rather than react.

“I abhor gun violence,” Harden said. “When they put me on that assignment, it was like they gave me the mushroom that they give to Mario.”

***

Meanwhile, the crimes he was prosecuting became more serious. The risk was high for defendants. He didn’t want to send 18-year-old kids away for life for being around when a robbery occurred. He thinks everyone deserves a chance at parole. And he felt himself hitting a plateau.

So in the spring of 2014, Harden put in his notice at the DA’s office. Some people thought it was because of the money. It wasn’t — as he says, as an attorney “there’s not many places you can leave the district attorney’s office and go and make less money.”

He took the white collar criminal defense job at Eckert Seamans, and he now handles internal investigations for companies large and small. He’s worked on issues of trade sanctions in Cuba, Syria and Crimea and helped companies figure out how to ensure they don’t violate embargoes. Other times, he’s hired by corporations that have an allegation of wrongdoing and want independent eyes to come in and take a look.

Ginene Lewis, an attorney at Drinker Biddle and a long-time friend of Harden’s, said her favorite part about him is that despite all he’s been through, he never lost sight of who he was — and who he’s become.

“Some people who look at him are very quick to pass judgement with regard to his past,” she said. “It makes me proud to see him continue to truck through. It shows there’s nothing he can’t do, so long as he remains true to himself.”

That means he’s still doing the criminal justice thing. Just in a different way.

In addition to the Barristers’, Harden sits on other boards and chairs the Philadelphia Bar Association’s criminal justice section. It’s here where he can push for reform and progress. And while Harden doesn’t first come out and call himself a reformer, he is one. How could he not advocate for things like the programs that kept his own record clean?

“You have a prosecutor in the system and now a white collar lawyer who is a product of criminal justice reform,” Harden said, “and everyone knows it.”

He also seems ripe for political office. Harden says he doesn’t necessarily want to get into politics. But someday, if he feels he has to, he will, saying: “If I were sitting on the sideline and it looked like someone like Lynne Abraham would come be the district attorney again, I would feel pressured to run.” Abraham, Philadelphia’s former DA, was known nationally for her use of the death penalty.

When I asked Harden why he takes on those time-consuming side gigs with the Bar Association and others, he says it’s about influence, and it’s about having an impact beyond what he’s doing during the day. Big decisions, he said, are made in Center City skyscrapers and often don’t make it out to 19143 — the zip code where he grew up at 58th and Baltimore.

“I’m frequently the only African American person in the room,” he said, “and they’re very, very important rooms.”

In the coming years, Harden might step away from the extra commitments. He wants to focus on professional development at his firm.

And in April, his girlfriend is due to give birth. It’ll be Harden’s first child — a baby girl.

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