Topeka — The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday upheld the murder conviction of Thomas Murray, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 2003 slaying of his ex-wife in rural Douglas County.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said he was pleased with the unanimous ruling.
"It's still a horrendous situation, but the outcome in the case was right," Branson said.
The body of Carmin Ross, 40, was found in her house at 1860 E. 1150 Road on Nov. 14, 2003. She had been beaten and repeatedly stabbed.
Murray, a former Kansas State University English professor, was arrested nearly a year later.
He denied killing Ross - calling the state's case a "fairy tale" - but was convicted of first-degree murder after a five-week trial in 2005.
On appeal, Murray said his conviction was based solely on weak circumstantial evidence.
"The state's case was a house of cards, built on dozens of minor circumstances," Murray's appellate attorney, Sarah Ellen Johnson, argued in a legal brief.
The court said that although the conviction was based on circumstantial evidence, that was OK.
Writing for the court, Justice Robert Davis said it's "not the place of an appellate court to reassess the weight and credibility of the evidence presented at trial; that assessment is the onus of the jury.
"Rather, we need only determine whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, was sufficient to support the conviction."
Davis added that although there was no direct evidence linking Murray to Ross' murder, there was enough evidence to convict him.
Murray and Ross, who had divorced in 2003, had been involved in a custody dispute over their 4-year-old daughter. Shortly before her murder, Ross had planned to remarry and possibly move from her home north of Lawrence to California.
Davis wrote: "In short, the state produced evidence that the defendant suffered wounds consistent with those that would have been suffered by Carmin's attacker, who inflicted 11 blows to the victim with a blunt object, retrieved a knife from Carmin's kitchen, and stabbed her 13 times in the neck and back."
In the 53-page opinion, Davis also said the state proved that Murray had a motive and his whereabouts during the crime were unknown.
But Murray contended he was denied a fair trial because prosecutors made false statements during closing arguments and Douglas County Judge Robert Fairchild inappropriately allowed statements into the trial that Ross had made about Murray before her death.
For example, prosecutors said in closing arguments that Murray's blood was found in Ross' bathroom when in reality an analysis of a bloodstain was inconclusive.
But Davis said because the DNA testing of the blood was highly contested, "the prosecutor's argument consisted of reasonable inferences based on the record in the case."
In another instance, Tom Bath, a private prosecutor hired by the Ross family, had stated to the jury, "His best friend thinks he is a murderer."
Bath was referring to testimony by Murray's friend Gay Lynn Crossley-Brubaker.
But Crossley-Brubaker never said that. When asked on the witness stand whether she thought Murray could have killed Ross, Crossley-Brubaker said she didn't know.
But Davis said Crossley-Brubaker also testified that it had "crossed (her) mind" that Murray was involved in the homicide.
Murray also argued that testimony about Ross' statements to her attorney and mother were not presented properly during the trial.
Davis said even if they weren't, the statements were not crucial to the case because other witnesses had testified about Murray's controlling nature, and there was other evidence dealing with the custody dispute.
Johnson, Murray's appellate attorney, said Murray's next step in his legal battle, if he chooses to continue, would be to file a motion asking the district court for a new trial.
She said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was doubtful because there were no constitutional issues in dispute.