Archive for Saturday, March 15, 2003

Suspect admits killing couple

Prosecutors agree to drop death penalty case in exchange for plea

March 15, 2003


Damien Lewis, a 22-year-old parolee accused of killing an elderly couple in their home last summer, pleaded guilty Friday to the crime and several others.

In exchange for Lewis' guilty plea, Douglas County Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney agreed not to seek the death penalty.

During a 40-minute hearing, Lewis told Judge Michael Malone he expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. Lewis' sentencing is set for June 13.

Lewis pleaded guilty to several crimes:

  • Killing George "Pete" Wallace and Wyona Chandlee, both 71, during a July 10, 2002, burglary at the couple's house, in the 1500 block of Learnard Avenue on Lawrence's east side.
  • Breaking into a house in the 1900 block of Learnard on July 8.
  • Robbing an acquaintance, Norris Hunter, at gunpoint on July 16.

Throughout the hearing, Malone sought assurances Lewis realized the likely consequences of his plea. Lewis assured Malone that he did.

At one point, Malone asked Lewis whether he'd been promised anything outside of being spared the death penalty. Lewis replied: "Only that I'll never get out of prison."

Dressed in dark slacks and a striped blue and white shirt, Lewis read a statement in which he admitted he "intentionally shot both people (Chandlee and Wallace). I fired several shots within a short time. Although things happened quickly, I had time to think about what I was doing. I now know that the shots I fired killed both people."

During Lewis' Dec. 12 preliminary hearing, Detective M.T. Brown testified Lewis had confessed to shooting Chandlee and Wallace after the couple interrupted him during a burglary.

"He said he ordered them to get down on their knees and to be quiet," Brown said. "And then he told them to give him their money."

Brown said that after Chandlee gave Lewis $150 from her wallet, Lewis shot her and Wallace twice in the head.

Friends disappointed

Friends of the victims were both disappointed and relieved by the plea agreement.

"We think the guy deserves the death penalty for what he did," said Claud Aubry, a friend of both Chandlee and Wallace, speaking on behalf of the Mount Oread Aerie No. 309 Fraternal Order of Eagles in Lawrence.

Wallace, a retired truck driver, was president of the Eagles at the time of his death. Chandlee's second husband, Ellis, was a former president.

Ellis Chandlee died in 1993.

"Pete and Wyona were such good people; they would have given him anything in the house," Aubry said. "They were the kind of people who would give you the shirt off their back if they knew you needed it."

"So we're upset that (Lewis) won't get the death penalty. That's one way of looking at this," he said. "The other way is that for the family, maybe this will bring some closure; they're not going to have to keep going through this over and over and over. Maybe they can put their lives back together and move on."

Chandlee's and Wallace's families have declined to be interviewed.

Expensive proposition

Because a gag order has been imposed in the case, neither Kenney nor Lewis' attorneys, Ron Evans and Kirk Redmond, were willing to comment on the plea.

Redmond and Evans are members of the Kansas Capital Murder Defense Unit.

Kenney's not seeking the death penalty is expected to spare Douglas County taxpayers more than $1 million in legal bills.

"She saved the county a lot of money," said Shelley Bock, a Lawrence attorney and president of the Douglas County Criminal Defense Bar Assn.

Bock said that after learning Lewis had waived his right to contest the evidence presented at his preliminary hearing, he thought Lewis and his attorneys "made the far better choice -- and that's to suffer the consequences of your actions rather than take on the ultimate ... execution."

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