Kansas Supreme Court Holds Prosecutor’s Blatant Lies to Jury During Closing Argument Constituted Prosecutorial Misconduct Requiring Reversal of Murder Convictions
by Dale Chappell
A prosecutor’s lies amounted to prosecutorial misconduct requiring a new murder trial, the Supreme Court of Kansas held in a lengthy opinion exposing at least seven major errors by the prosecution.
The Court began its opinion with the following admonishment: “In a criminal prosecution, the State’s obligation is to ensure its case is vigorously, but properly, championed to bring about a just conviction—not merely a win.” It ended its opinion by lamenting, “this prosecution unfortunately illustrates how a desire to win can eclipse the State’s responsibility to safeguard the fundamental constitutional right to a fair trial owed to any defendant facing criminal prosecution in a Kansas courtroom.”
Dana Chandler was accused of murder after her ex-husband and his girlfriend (Mike and Karen) were found dead in their home July 2002. The only evidence police had against Chandler was a nasty divorce and her sometimes obsessive behavior toward Mike and Karen. Nine years later, Chandler was arrested for the murders, charged with premeditated first-degree murder, and went to trial.
The State convinced the jury to convict Chandler — in part by lying. The prosecutor, Jacqueline Spradling, told the jury that Mike had to obtain a protection from abuse order from a court to keep Chandler away from him. Spradling told the jury during closing argument, “How else do we know the defendant is guilty? Mike got a protective order from abuse, a court order.” She also told the jury that Chandler had violated that court order shortly thereafter. However, none of that was true. The jury found Chandler guilty, and she was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. She appealed.
On appeal, the State eventually conceded there was no protection from abuse order. The Kansas Supreme Court expressed its displeasure with the State, noting that the concession “was a long time coming—even though we would expect the State never to shield something so obviously indefensible,” as it inexplicably attempted to do in its initial briefing to the Court. In its initial briefing, the State still maintained that a protection from abuse had been issued, but as the Supreme Court noted, “[t]hese statements were not true.
The Court discussed several prosecutorial errors in the case, but it emphasized that the “one conceded error was enough to reverse these convictions—the prosecutor falsely claiming Mike got a protection from abuse order against Chandler….”
There are two types of prosecutorial complaints: “prosecutorial error” and “prosecutorial misconduct.” The latter is reserved for the rare, “more egregious transgressions.” State v. Sherman, 378 P.3d 1060 (Kan. 2016). When a prosecutor’s conduct is “outside the wide latitude allowed,” it is not harmless if it was gross and flagrant, showed ill will on the part of the prosecutor’s part, and the evidence is overwhelming. In other words, the error would be harmless if “there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.” Spradling’s conduct in this case was egregious, the Kansas Supreme Court said, and rose to the level of “prosecutorial misconduct.”
The State, in its defense, claimed that Spradling merely “misspoke” by telling the jury there was a protection from abuse order. The Court rejected that argument. “The prosecutor specifically and intentionally referred to ‘protective from abuse orders,’” the Court said. The prosecutor even coached a detective on the stand to testify that Mike got a protective order against Chandler. This was no slip of the tongue. In addition, the Court detailed other facts and circumstances that led it to conclude the prosecutor didn’t innocently misspeak and didn’t have “a good faith belief this order really existed.”
After having ruled that the prosecutor’s actions were “outside the wide latitude afforded to prosecutors,” the Court then discussed “why this error prejudiced Chandler’s due process right to a fair trial and requires reversal.”
The State argued that any “protection from abuse” reference didn’t affect the verdict because the evidence of guilt was “overwhelming.”
The Court rejected the State’s argument. It determined that the circumstantial evidence presented at trial was sufficient to convict, “but not overwhelming.” The Court explained that the “false statements about this made-up protection from abuse order helped the State fill in the blanks to its narrative.” That is, the false narrative about the protection order told jurors that an independent judge validated Mike’s fears that Chandler was so dangerous and uncontrollable that judicial intervention was necessary and that she violated the nonexistent order.
The Court observed that the prosecutor apparently knew the power judges have on influencing juries and understood the “value of feigning judicial endorsement for the State’s theory about Chandler’s uncontrollable dangerousness.” The Court pointed out the numerous times the prosecutor used the terms ‘judge,’ ‘court order,’ and ‘order’ during a five-sentence span during closing argument. Quite pointedly, the Court stated that “Chandler’s prosecutor used an untruth about judicial approval to stack the deck.”
Accordingly, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Chandler’s convictions and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. See: State v. Chandler, 414 P.3d 713 (Kan. 2018).
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Related legal case
State v. Chandler
|Cite||414 P.3d 713 (Kan. 2018)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|