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Archive for Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Judge lifts drug offender’s life term

Junction City mother, punished under now-defunct law, had served 11 years

May 19, 2004

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A Junction City woman serving a life sentence for trying to buy $40 worth of cocaine has been set free.

"This is wonderful, really wonderful," said Gloria Van Winkle, who's spent the past 11 years at the state prison for women in Topeka. "I just hope no other woman ever has to go through what I've been through."

Van Winkle, 45, was sentenced to life in prison in 1992 after a third-time conviction for cocaine possession in Geary County. At the time, she was subject to the state's "three-strikes" law.

Less than a year later, legislators replaced the law with sentencing guidelines.

In 2003, the guidelines were modified so that most offenders are now sent to rehabilitation programs rather than prison. The change, however, was not retroactive. Van Winkle remained incarcerated.

Reduced time

Van Winkle, who has two children, ages 16 and 12, has long argued that others -- child molesters and drunken drivers involved in fatal accidents, for example -- served shorter sentences.

Last month, the Kansas Department of Corrections filed a motion in Geary County District Court, recommending a sentence reduction that would have made Van Winkle eligible for parole in August.

But on Monday, Van Winkle's attorney, Billy Rork of Topeka, asked the court to reduce the sentence to time served.

Judge Steven Hornbaker granted Rork's request, setting Van Winkle free.

"It was unbelievable," said Jane Stevenson, who's led a support group for Topeka Correctional Facility inmates for the past 11 years. She attended the hearing.

"The lawyers argued back and forth over whether the judge had the authority to do that," said Stevenson, who lives in Overland Park. "The judge said, 'Well, I don't see what difference another 90 days is going to make. She's served long enough.' And then after that, he set her free.

"All of us, I think, were dumfounded," Stevenson said.

Van Winkle was released after returning to Topeka Correctional Facility, where she gathered her belongings and signed her release papers. She is not subject to postrelease supervision.

Sentence modification

The Department of Corrections also has filed a motion to modify the sentence of Paul Goseland, a Wichita man who is serving a life sentence for three possession convictions.

A hearing on Goseland's sentence is set for Friday in Sedgwick County District Court.

Goseland's and Van Winkle's cases are not the beginning of a sentence-reduction trend, said corrections spokesman Bill Miskell.

"This was just a matter of taking a look at the two mandatory minimum sentences that remained in the system," Miskell said.

Still, Miskell said the recommended modifications were the first in his 15 years with the department.

Stevenson and other volunteers spent the rest of the afternoon finding Van Winkle an apartment in Topeka, some furniture and kitchen utensils.

"You don't make a lot of money in prison," Stevenson said. "But Gloria managed to save $769. That's what we put down on the apartment -- deposit and first month's rent."

On the outside

Tony Cruz, a Geary County assistant district attorney, argued against Van Winkle's release.

"She has an extensive criminal history. We found 17 cases against her for all kinds of things -- and that was just through the 1980s," Cruz said. "She's shown time and time again that she's a person who doesn't understand that you can't keep breaking the law."

Cruz said he "wasn't happy" with the judge's ruling but would not contest it.

"I just hope that for the sake of whatever community Ms. Van Winkle chooses to move to, our assessment of her is wrong," Cruz said.

Rork, Van Winkle's attorney, dismissed Cruz's assessment.

"That's just sour grapes on his part," he said. "The Department of Corrections testified that Gloria had earned 44 hours of college credit and has more than 700 hours of heating and air-conditioning training. She completed every self-improvement course and program they have."

Van Winkle, who's a licensed forklift operator, spent much of Tuesday looking for a job.

"I'm doing great," she said. "I'm going slow, taking one day at a time."

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