TOPEKA The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the "Hard 50" murder sentence of a Wichita man on Friday, but refused to rule whether changes legislators made to the law last year can be applied.
Justices ruled that the sentence for Rogelio Soto in a 2009 stabbing must be vacated because his rights were violated when a judge, rather than a jury, sentenced him to 50 years in prison with no possibility of parole.
The case is the first to be decided in Kansas after a June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found juries, not judges, must impose a maximum minimum sentence such as the "Hard 50."
Kansas legislators who rewrote the law last year argued those changes should be applied only on pending "Hard 50" cases and those on appeal.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Friday in a statement that the court's ruling indicated legislators were correct to act in September to correct the constitutional flaw. He didn't comment on the lack of clarity from the justices about whether those changes can be applied retroactively.
Kevin Zolotor, a defense attorney representing Soto on appeal, said the ruling was anticipated, and he wasn't surprised that the justices sidestepped the retroactivity issue.
Zolotor said a ruling on whether defendants could be resentenced to the mandatory 50-year prison term would likely come once they are resentenced at the district court level and an appeal filed with the state Supreme Court.
Soto, 21, was 16 at the time of the stabbing and tried as an adult. Prosecutors said the killing was a result of a long-running gang feud. Victim Arturo Moreno, 28, was stabbed 79 times. Soto was one of three people charged in the crime, though the court's ruling Friday applied only to his conviction and sentence.
Defense attorneys in Soto's case and nearly a dozen appeals filed with the Kansas Supreme Court argued that changes made to the law amount to a new crime and punishment that didn't exist until September 2013. The attorneys also argued it would be unconstitutional under the ex post facto clause — charging someone for a crime that didn't exist at the time — and thus couldn't be applied to Soto or other cases that were decided as much as a decade ago.
If the court were to rule against imposing the 50-year sentence in those cases, defendants then would be eligible to a life sentence without parole for a mandatory 25 years.
In Kansas, the only penalties tougher than the "Hard 50" are capital punishment and life without parole — the alternative to death in a capital case and a possible sentence for some habitual sex offenders.