WICHITA (AP) — Lawyers are debating whether a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that led to a convicted murderer getting off death row could undermine three other death penalty cases.
The Supreme Court last year ruled that prosecutors have a choice in murder cases that have multiple victims. Prosecutors can either file a first-degree murder count for each murder victim or file a single capital murder count that covers all victims.
Before, Kansas prosecutors, who were following the lead of other states with similar death penalty laws, filed multiple murder counts in multiple murder cases.
Prosecutors in Wichita said the ruling effectively made it impossible to retry Michael Marsh, who was sentenced to death for the 1996 deaths of a woman and her young daughter. March was convicted of one count of capital murder and one count of first-degree murder, but the capital murder charge was overturned on appeal.
To try Marsh again on the capital murder charge, prosecutors said they would have had to find a way to consolidate that charge with a first-degree murder conviction. Instead, they worked out a plea agreement where Marsh, 33, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder and will serve more than 62 years before being eligible for parole.
Rebecca Woodman, a state public defender who handles death penalty appeals, said she believed the Supreme Court’s ruling could come up in other cases, although she would not discuss specific ones.
“I think it could play a role in cases that were charged as multiple murders,” she said. “Every appeal is different, but certainly this issue could surface again.”
Assistant Kansas Attorney General Barry Disney partially agreed.
“Yes, this issue could come up in other cases,” Disney said. “But that is not to say the outcome would be that of Marsh.”
Among the death penalty cases that involve multiple slayings:
• John Robinson, sentenced to death for the 2000 murders of two women whose bodies were found stuffed in barrels on his rural Johnson County property. He was convicted of two counts of capital murder.
• Phillip Cheatham, sentenced to death for the 2003 murders of two women. He was convicted of one count of capital murder and two counts of first-degree murder.
• Sidney Gleason, sentenced to death for the 2004 deaths of a Great Bend couple. He was convicted of capital murder, first-degree murder and several other charges.
Two of 11 defendants sentenced to death are now off death row. Lawyers said the remaining nine cases contain issues that have yet to be resolved by the Kansas Supreme Court.
“There’s been a death penalty in Kansas for 15 years, and we haven’t gotten one case — not one single case — through the first level of appeals,” said Wichita lawyer Richard Ney, who has defended death penalty cases in several states. “Not a single case has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Kansas.”