Wichita Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office is defending the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty law from a challenge raised in the case against the Great Bend man accused of killing a teenager whose charred body was found at an asphalt plant.
In preparation for a hearing Tuesday in Great Bend, state prosecutors filed their written responses late Friday afternoon to the death penalty challenge and other motions the defense had mostly filed in January. The move came after questions were raised as to why no written responses to the defense motions had yet been made despite Barton County Judge Hannelore Kitt’s standing order requiring the state to do so in the death penalty case against Adam Joseph Longoria.
“I think we are in compliance,” Deputy Attorney General Victor Braden said after the filings. “We are ready for Tuesday and we will see how it goes.”
Longoria faces capital murder and criminal sodomy charges in the August killing of 14-year-old Alicia DeBolt.
The attorneys with the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit who represent Longoria, Jeffrey Wicks and Tim Frieden, did not return a message left at their office Friday seeking comment.
Death penalty prosecutions are handled in two phases. First is the trial to determine whether a suspect is guilty. If convicted, the next step is a penalty phase to determine whether the crime warrants the death sentence. In the second phase, jurors consider aggravating factors such as whether a killing was especially heinous and mitigating factors such as whether a defendant lacked a previous significant criminal record.
Longoria’s defense has argued the death penalty in the state is unconstitutional because so-called relaxed evidentiary standards allow the government too much leeway in the type of evidence it can present for aggravating factors. The defense also separately challenged the law on the basis that death penalty verdicts are ambiguous and unreliable since they do not require the jury to disclose the considerations that motivated the death sentence and what weight jurors gave to any mitigating evidence.
Defense attorneys also noted the death penalty has been upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court and acknowledged they were filing the request to preserve the issue for future appeals.
The state’s responses were faxed to Great Bend so late on Friday that they were not available on the court’s website. Braden declined to email the documents, citing a previous court order that had set up the website for public access.
Ron Keefover, chief information officer with the Office of Judicial Administration, told the AP that statutorily in Kansas written responses are due within five days of a motion’s filing, although parties are not required to file responses. Keefover, the media liaison for the Great Bend case, acknowledged that in the Longoria case the judge specifically ordered prosecutors to file written responses to all defense motions.
Braden disputed that there was any such five-day response requirement, insisting he could have hand-carried his written motions to court on Tuesday had he wanted to do so.
The death penalty case against Longoria was filed by former Attorney General Steve Six, who personally prosecuted it until losing his election bid. He was assisted in the case by Deputy Attorney General Barry Disney, who also left the state attorney general’s office during the transition.
Six has since been nominated by President Barack Obama for a seat on the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Disney has accepted a job with the U.S. attorney’s office.
Court filings show that when Six was handling the case prosecutors responded in writing within days to defense motions.
Barton County Attorney Doug Matthews said in an email that he has “every confidence” in Braden as well the new attorney general and his staff to handle the prosecution.
“I’ve attended several meeting with Mr. Braden and the other AG staff who are working on the prosecution of the case, and have been greatly impressed with the time and energy they’ve committed,” Matthews said.
Both Six and Schmidt said during their election campaigns last year that they supported the death penalty.
But the election upset left the attorney general’s office scrambling to replace the prosecutors who filed the charges.
Braden took over prosecution of the case in late December during the transition. Assistant Attorney General Andrew Bauch entered his appearance in it last week.
Unlike his predecessor, Schmidt is not personally prosecuting the Longoria case.
“Attorney General Schmidt decided to appoint the head of the criminal division, Vic Braden, a career prosecutor, to lead the case,” said Jeff Wagaman, spokesman for the Kansas attorney general’s office. “Vic has extensive experience prosecuting homicide cases, and he led the prosecution team in the last death penalty verdict case in Kansas.”