Topeka Kansas' death penalty law survived its first challenge Friday when the state Supreme Court upheld a killer's conviction and the constitutionality of capital punishment.
Justices, however, threw out Gary Kleypas' death sentence, ruling that an instruction form used to guide jurors in death penalty deliberations was "seriously deficient."
Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall said the 338-page ruling, released after a year of deliberation, would likely result in resentencing proceedings for the other three men on Kansas' death row.
But she insisted the state would again seek execution for each defendant, saying the questioned form could quickly be rewritten without legislative approval and used during resentencing.
"This is an overwhelming victory for the death penalty, for victims of homicides in Kansas and crime victims in general," Stovall said.
Kleypas was convicted in 1997 of fatally stabbing Carrie Williams, a 20-year-old Pittsburg State University student. He was sentenced to die, the first of four men put on death row since Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994. The last execution in Kansas was in 1965.
The justices returned Kleypas' sentencing to Crawford County, where District Court Judge Donald Noland will be instructed to create a new jury for sentencing. Kleypas will await the proceedings at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.
In deciding Kleypas' case, the justices criticized the law, ruling that the instruction form gives insufficient guidance for considering mitigating and aggravating circumstances when deciding on death as a punishment.
The justices ruled unanimously that the form was flawed because jurors were only instructed to vote unanimously for death or life in prison, even though state law says a less-than-unanimous decision can result in a life sentence.
The court ruled that the burden is on the state to prove why a defendant should be put to death. If mitigating factors outweigh aggravating ones during the commission of the crime, the justices said, life in prison should be the sentence.
The court also said, in a 4-3 vote, that when it comes to those circumstances, "fundamental fairness" requires that a "tie" between aggravating and mitigating circumstances go to the defendant meaning a life sentence.
There was no suggestion in the ruling that the justices believed that there were greater numbers of mitigating circumstances in Kleypas' case, nor that there were equal numbers of both.
Aggravating factors in the Kleypas case include his prior murder conviction for killing a 78-year-old woman in Missouri in 1977.
Steven Zinn, who handled Kleypas' appeal, said the Kansas Appellate Defender Office is reviewing its options at the state and federal level.
"While we believe in light of this ruling the court should have set aside the death penalty statute in its entirety, we nevertheless are pleased that the court did find that the tie portion was unfair," Zinn said.
Zinn said he spoke with Kleypas after Friday's ruling, but he declined to elaborate.
Rebecca Woodman, also an attorney with the defenders office, said they believe that the remaining death row inmates Michael Marsh, Gavin Scott and Stanley Elms also will receive new sentencing hearings. All three were sentenced in Sedgwick County.
Zinn said jurors in all but Scott's case were given the flawed form. However, he said, all were sentenced under the "tie goes to the state" weighing factor.
Williams was killed within walking distance of the Pittsburg campus, where Kleypas also attended classes. Her body was found on the bedroom floor of her apartment, with Kleypas' phone number appearing on her phone's caller ID. Blood matching his was found in her apartment.
Two days after the killing, Kleypas was found in a Springfield, Mo., motel room, disoriented and covered in his own blood after slashing his neck, wrists and ankles.
Kleypas attorneys raised 51 issues with the court during arguments in December 2000, claiming errors by the court, prosecutors and jury. They also claimed the death penalty is unconstitutional.
Stovall said she spoke with Williams' family members, who were "frustrated" with the ruling.
Justices normally issue their opinions within a month of arguments, but the court said a year ago it would take longer with Kleypas because of about 3,000 pages of briefs related to the case.