Archive for Thursday, May 6, 2004

Kansas appeals judge dies at 64

Robert Lewis had represented 1985 crime spree defendant

May 6, 2004

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— Robert J. Lewis Jr., a member of the Kansas Court of Appeals since 1989, has died. He was 64.

Lewis died at a Topeka hospital where he had been a patient for about 10 days, said his wife, Jane. Lewis suffered from congestive heart failure.

Born in Atwood, Lewis practiced law there until his appointment to the bench by Gov. Mike Hayden. He ranked third in seniority among the 11 members of the appeals court.

Lewis was a graduate of Kansas University and its law school, where he ranked first in his class. He served for two years as an assistant attorney general before returning home and serving as the Rawlins County attorney from 1967 to 1971.

Mrs. Lewis said her husband particularly enjoyed doing legal research in his job as an appeals court judge, taking pride in writing all of his own opinions and doing it in longhand on a legal pad, rather than on a computer.

"Bob was a very prolific writer and an excellent one," said Judge Gary Rulon, chief judge of the Court of Appeals. "His opinions were always well-reasoned and very succinct."

While in private practice at Atwood, Lewis was appointed to represent one of the defendants in a 1985 western Kansas crime spree that left four people dead. His client, James Hunter of Amoret, Mo., said he was hitchhiking near Wichita when picked up by three people from Michigan.

Later, a man was shot and killed at a Grainfield restaurant and two men abducted from a grain elevator in Levant were gunned down along a highway. In a subsequent shootout, one of the people from Michigan was killed and Hunter and the two other fugitives were captured.

Hunter, who maintained he was compelled to go along with the others, was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and other charges, but the Kansas Supreme Court ordered a new trial. At his second trial in Hays, Hunter was acquitted on all charges and set free after nearly three years in prison. But four days later, he collapsed and died of a heart attack at 36.

The crime spree case was widely publicized, with proceedings broadcast on television in western Kansas.

"It was so good nobody watched 'Days of Our Lives,"' Jane Lewis said. "Everybody was watching the trial."

She said, however, that pressure from working on the case "took its toll" on her husband, who suffered his first heart attack a short time later.

Lewis was honored for his work on the case by the American College of Trial Lawyers, which presented him its Award for Courageous Advocacy in 1991.

Survivors, beside his wife and son Jeff, include another daughter, Kathryn Welch, of Topeka; his mother, Marvel Lewis; a sister, M. Jane Lewis; and five grandchildren.

The funeral will be Thursday at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Topeka, with burial and a memorial service on Saturday in Atwood.

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