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Kansas Supreme Court Overturns Sentence for Vindictiveness

by Anthony Accurso

The Supreme Court of Kansas overturned a decision of the Court of Appeals and vacated the defendant’s sentence because the district court’s only reason for lengthening his sentence on remand was defendant’s successful appeal. 

Wyatt G. Brown pleaded no contest to one count of aggravated sodomy in violation of K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-5504(b)(1). Under Jessica’s Law, this crime carried a mandatory term of life, though the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines grid recommended a range of 554 to 618 months.

Because Brown’s victim was a minor, Brown’s public defender struck a plea deal, which would prevent the victim from having to testify in court in exchange for the State agreeing to not appeal any sentence of at least 360 months. 

At sentencing, the district court recognized Brown’s effort to avoid further traumatizing the victim, as well as having saved the State the cost of trying him. The district court departed from both the mandatory life sentence and the stated guidelines and sentenced Brown to 360 months. 

Brown’s public defender believed that Brown’s deteriorated mental state, owing to his lengthy period of time in county jail, was so diminished as to make him unable to knowingly waive his right to appeal. The public defender appealed Brown’s sentence on the grounds that the district court articulated its reasons for the departure from the mandatory minimum of life but not the departure from the guidelines. The Court of Appeals agreed this was an error and remanded Brown’s case for resentencing. 

At resentencing, the victim’s mother testified that the resentencing was further traumatizing her family, and the prosecutor argued for a longer sentence to reflect how Brown’s behavior (his success on appeal) was harming the victim’s family and violating the spirit under which the district court originally gave him such a low sentence. The district court then sentenced Brown to 372 months. 

Brown then appealed this sentence as vindictive. The Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence by stating that no presumption of vindictiveness is present where the original (shorter) sentence was illegal. Brown appealed, and the Kansas Supreme Court took up his case. The Kansas Supreme Court relied heavily on North Carolina v. Pearce, 395 U.S. 711 (1969). The U.S. Supreme Court in Pearce required affirmative reasons to be articulated when a court imposes a longer sentence on remand. This requirement is necessary because “due process … requires that a defendant be freed of apprehension” of retaliation for exercising his appellate rights.

After discussing various scenarios under which it is permissible to impose a greater sentence on remand, the Kansas Supreme Court found that the district court failed to articulate a reason for the longer sentence that did not flow logically from Brown’s successful appeal alone. 

Accordingly, the Kansas Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals’ decision, vacated Brown’s second sentence based on a presumption of vindictiveness, and remanded for resentencing consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Brown, 435 P.3d 546 (Kan. 2019). 

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