Archive for Monday, August 26, 2013

Prosecutors, defense attorneys clash over proposed changes to Hard 50 law

August 26, 2013


— State legislators today proposed patching the Kansas law that requires heinous murderers to serve at least 50 years in prison, but defense attorneys said the fix wouldn't last.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt (center) speaks with members of the Special Judiciary Committee on Monday prior to hearing on proposed changes to the "Hard 50" law.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt (center) speaks with members of the Special Judiciary Committee on Monday prior to hearing on proposed changes to the "Hard 50" law.

The so-called Hard 50 law was thrown into question by a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Those sentenced to life in prison under the law must serve at least 50 years in prison before they can be eligible for parole.

But the Supreme Court in June ruled in an unrelated case that aggravating factors of the crime that qualify the defendant for a minimum sentence must be determined by a jury and not a judge.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt requested that Gov. Sam Brownback call a special session of the Legislature so that legislators could fix the law. Brownback set the session for Sept. 3.

That led to today's meeting of the Special Judiciary Committee, where Schmidt offered a proposed bill that he said would address the court's decision and put the jury in charge of determining whether aggravating circumstances, such as whether the victim was killed in an especially cruel manner, warranted a Hard 50 sentence.

There are currently 106 offenders in state prison sentenced to either a Hard 50 sentence or the older sentence of Hard 40. Under the proposed law, most of these would be re-sentenced before a jury, officials said. And there are 35 more offenders charged under the Hard 50 but who haven't been tried yet. The initial estimated price tag on the extra proceedings is $878,408.

Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies supported Schmidt, but attorneys who represent defendants said the proposed fix would produce more constitutional problems and invite lengthy and expensive legal challenges.

"We need to fix the problem and not just create more tune-ups down the road," said Jessica Glendening, an attorney from Lawrence who serves on the board of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But the committee, made up of House and Senate members, recommended introduction of Schmidt's bill when legislators gather next week for what officials have promised will be a session of no more than three days.

During the meeting, prosecutors and defense lawyers clashed over several provisions.

Schmidt wants the proposed bill to apply to previous Hard 50 cases to ensure that those already sentenced or tried won't have their sentences reduced so that they would be eligible for parole after 25 years.

Prosecutors from Johnson, Wyandotte, Sedgwick and Riley counties agreed, saying the Hard 50 was reserved for the "worst of the worst." They argued that if the sentence were not re-applied to offenders whose fates may be in question because of the Supreme Court ruling, then those offenders would be up for parole after 25 years.

That would be too soon, they said, because some of the defendants who received the sentence were young enough that, if they were released after 25 years, they could commit further crimes. The prosecutors recounted several cases they had tried where defendants tortured and brutally murdered their victims.

But Glendening said making the Hard 50 changes retroactive would spawn more legal challenges and lead to more turmoil for the families of murder victims.

She said the state's parole board would be unlikely to let any of those people out after 25 years. If the offenders failed to gain parole after 25 years, they would not be eligible again for another 10 years, she said.

Another proposal would allow the judge in a Hard 50 case to determine whether a defendant had a prior conviction.

But Randall Hodgkinson, with the state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that determination should be left up to the jury.

If juries were in charge of determining whether a prior conviction existed, prosecutors said they would have to re-try earlier convictions, which in some cases would be impossible because of the passage of time. But Hodgkinson said a prosecutor would simply have to enter the defendant's conviction record in the new case.

Also during the meeting, key legislators indicated that when the 2014 regular legislative session starts in January they would take a broader look at the issue, perhaps passing a Hard 50 sentence for all first-degree murders.

In addition, state Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, Kan., said he would probably seek abolition of the state's death penalty again, proposing that it be replaced with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.


Jayhawker07 4 years, 8 months ago

So you outright murder someone and you get life, that does realy not mean life in prison? More like 25 or less years. WTF? But we do not allow law abiding citizens to own a firearm without a backround check. Would a ID be part of the process. Yea, this is some good stuff. Let the criminals aquire arms on the black market to use against an unarmed individual. Nice set of rules. Just wait till the oil dollars are no longer printed, life will change as was promised by our leaders. What are the chances of voting any of them out? None. It is like a retiement home for the 1% loosers that could not make it in life without lying and cheating there friends.

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

I believe the only change they really need to make is that the jury must decide if they get the hard 50, instead of the judge. Many juries will be happy to do that if they think the crime fits.

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

I should think this could be solved by putting together some special grand juries. They could review the crime and decide which ones should by a Hard 50, and which ones shouldn't - decided by a jury of peers instead of by a judge. There fixed it. Maybe I should run for office. Oh, but then my fellow legislators would hate me for getting something done simply, and not drawing out the special session, so they can take more of our tax dollars away from important stuff.

Jonathan Becker 4 years, 8 months ago

Good idea, tomatogrower. And when you convene that special grand jury, make sure you send the bill for operating that special grand jury to the Legislature to pay. The last time (1989) they held a special Grand Jury in NE Kansas, Paul Morrison was told to pay it out of his budget.

Frederic Gutknecht IV 4 years, 8 months ago

I think we should be concerned that the prison system has become a massive, privatized, public funds sucking business...intent on keeping people in prison. Each prisoner represents great profit to these leeches. Every year that these people are kept in the "system" earns these "businesses" big money and guarantees these prisoners will return as more skilled criminals once released, as they will be taught nothing but how to better develop their criminal skills. It is a perfect business model of captured and dangerous consumers, payed for by government (OUR) dollars.

Charles L. Bloss, Jr. 4 years, 8 months ago

A life sentence should mean just that. No parole ever. It really pisses me off when people under a life sentence are paroled.. I hope the legislature changes just this. Hard 40, hard 50, etc. would then be meaningless.

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

A hare 50 given to a 20 year old means that he wouldn't get out until he was 70. I'm not sure most would survive that long, and if they did, probably wouldn't be too much of a threat.

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