Douglas County judge to join Kansas Supreme Court to hear arguments in 2 cases

photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Aug. 1, 2019, Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny is pictured during a sentencing hearing.

Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny will join the Kansas Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in two cases on Tuesday, according to a news release from the Kansas Judicial Branch.

The first case Pokorny will hear with the court is an appeal in a Reno County criminal case. Samuel J. Vonachen, now 21, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder and one count of aggravated arson for a fire that killed his mother and sister when he was 14.

Vonachen was sentenced to 25 years to life. The court will decide whether the district court erred in denying a motion to suppress the teen’s statements to police and whether his constitutional rights were violated by Kansas’ abolishment of the insanity defense, among other issues, according to the release.

The second case is an appeal of a Clay County criminal case from 2011. As a juvenile, Michael Mata was adjudicated guilty of aggravated indecent liberties with a child and spent a little more than seven months in a juvenile correctional facility, according to the release. He was later acquitted by a jury.

In 2018, Mata filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit, but the state argued that his juvenile adjudication didn’t qualify for compensation. The district court agreed and dismissed the case, and Mata is appealing that decision. The state Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether a juvenile adjudication is a felony conviction for the purposes of the state’s wrongful conviction statute, among other issues.

The oral arguments in these cases are set for 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, respectively. The arguments will be held virtually, livestreamed via the court’s YouTube page.

“I look forward to collaborating with the Supreme Court justices to come to a fair decision in each of the cases. I hope my 42 years of experience as a practicing attorney and as a district court judge will bring a useful perspective to the bench,” Pokorny said in the release.

The online court records in both cases Pokorny will hear say that she is filling in the vacancy created by Justice Carol Beier’s Sept. 18 retirement. Pokorny was sworn in as a judge in 2009, appointed by former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Pokorny previously was county attorney for Montgomery County and in private practice in Montgomery County and Lawrence, according to the release.

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