Douglas County prosecutor removed from cases for errors in trials

Douglas County prosecutor Amy McGowan has been removed from her cases and assigned to other duties after the Kansas Supreme Court faulted her for trial errors.

McGowan’s comments during the closing arguments of several trials from 2007 to 2009 have been questioned by the court in several recent appeals, and last week the court vacated a sentence in a child-exploitation case because it said McGowan made improper comments during a sentencing hearing.

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said Thursday he had removed McGowan from her caseload of major felony sex crime cases. Instead, McGowan will be assigned as a charging attorney.

Branson said McGowan was not available for comment.

The reassignment comes after the court’s decision, on Feb. 8, to vacate the 52-month sentence of a Douglas County man convicted of attempted exploitation of a child. The court ruled McGowan made comments during Robert Peterson’s sentencing that violated a plea agreement, and sent the case back to district court for sentencing.

Four other cases have been appealed on similar arguments that McGowan made improper comments during closing arguments. All of the trials in those cases occurred between 2007 and 2009 and the appeals came in the past two years. The first court ruling to find fault with the prosecutor’s statements came in May 2012, and McGowan stopped using that language then, Branson said.

In two cases, the court found misconduct in McGowan’s comments but upheld the convictions. Two others await decisions from the court.

In the appeal of Allen Dale Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 2005 slaying of Clarence David Boose near Lecompton, Smith’s attorney argued that McGowan made improper comments that prejudiced the jury. McGowan had told the jury that “the truth” would give the victim a verdict against the defendant.

At the time, Branson conceded to the court that a comment to the jury to search for the truth instead of focusing solely on the evidence “is now frowned upon by the court.” But, he said, that has become clear in court decisions made after Smith’s trial.

The Supreme Court found misconduct in McGowan’s comments but upheld the conviction. Similarly, the court faulted McGowan for improper comments but upheld the conviction of Rashawn Anderson, found guilty of second-degree murder in the 2006 shooting after a concert at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts St.

The court has not yet decided an appeal brought last month by attorneys for Eric Ochs, convicted of raping an 11-year-old girl, or the appeal of Shanna Friday, convicted in the beating death of Jerry Deshazer, 62.

McGowan has been prosecuting major felony cases in Douglas County since she arrived from Jackson County, Mo., eight years ago. Altogether, Branson said, she has been prosecuting cases for 30 years and has secured hundreds of convictions, some of them in the county’s most difficult cases.

The court’s Feb. 8 decision to vacate Robert Peterson’s sentence was different from the others, Branson said, in that the court took the unusual step of naming McGowan specifically. In order to protect cases that are among the county’s most serious, Branson said, he is moving those cases from McGowan’s responsibility and distributing them among other prosecutors.

Peterson, now 68, has already served his prison sentence and was paroled in November, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections.

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