Death Row

There are now nine men on “death row”. Most are held at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in the little town of El Dorado, Kansas. Any death-sentenced woman would be held at Topeka. (Kansas doesn’t actually have a death row; inmates under sentence of death are held in administrative segregation.*) Lansing is the site of the state’s lethal injection chamber. No executions have occurred yet under the 1994 law.

Thirteen men have been sentenced to death, but plea agreements were reached during the appeals process in three cases which resulted in lesser sentences. Current “Death Row” inmates are:

  • Gary Kleypas, convicted for the 1996 rape-murder of Carrie Williams in Pittsburg, Kansas. The Kansas Supreme Court, in its review of his case, found serious problems with the death penalty statute and required that the penalty phase of the Kleypas case be revisited. (Crawford County) The sentence was overturned in 2001, and the new sentencing trial was held in Wyandotte County in 2008. On September 15, 2008, a jury again sentenced Kleypas to death.
  • Reginald Carr, convicted of capital murder for the December 15, 2000 murders of Jason Befort, Brad Heyka, Heather Muller, and Aaron Sander and of first degree murder (non-capital) for killing Ann Walenta four days before the quadruple murder. (Sedgwick County)
  • Jonathan Carr, convicted of the same five murders as his older brother Reginald. (Sedgwick County)
  • John E.Robinson, Sr., convicted of capital murder in the deaths of Izabel Lewicka and Suzette Trouten and of first degree murder in the case of Lisa Stasi, who disappeared in 1985 and was never found. (Johnson County)
  • Douglas Belt, convicted in November 2004 of capital murder, attempted rape and aggravated arson in the killing of Lucille Gallegos in west Wichita. (Sedgwick County)
  • Sidney Gleason, convicted in July 2006 in the shooting deaths of Miki Martinez and Darren Wormkey in February 2004. The other person accused in the case, Damian Thompson, cut a deal and got a life sentence. Thompson will be eligible for parole in 2029. (Barton County)
  • Scott Cheever, convicted in November 2007, of killing Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels in January 2005. (Greenwood County)
  • Justin Thurber, convicted in the January 2007 killing of 19-year-old college student Jodi Sanderholm, and sentenced in March 2009. (Cowley County)
  • James Kraig Kahler, convicted in October 2011 of killing his wife, Karen Kahler, his two daughters, Lauren and Emily Kahler, and his wife’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight.

The Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Kleypas case, vacating his sentence; although his murder conviction was upheld, a new sentencing trial was required. The Court ruled the law constitutional, but flawed in that it allows a death sentence if the aggravating factors presented by the prosecutor were equal to the mitigating factors presented by the defense. “Fundamental fairness” requires that a tie go to the defendant when it is a matter of life and death, said the Court.

The Court also found that an improper jury verdict form had been used, failing to make it clear that the jury did not have to arrive at a unanimous decision on a non-death sentence. The Court also found that prosecutorial misconduct had occurred. Because of the other issues that required the sentence to be vacated, the Court did not rule on whether this misconduct was of the level to require reversal on this fact alone.

 

Death Sentence Currently Not in Effect: Litigation Continues

Phillip Cheatham, convicted in September 2005 of one count of capital murder, two counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted first degree murder in the deaths of Gloria Jones, and Annette Roberson. A third victim, Annetta Thomas, played dead and survived with 19 gunshot wounds. (Shawnee County) In February 2010 a Shawnee County District Court Judge ruled that Cheatham should be resentenced due to inadequate representation of counsel during the penalty phase of his trial.

 

Three individuals have reached plea agreements that negated their sentences of death.

In reviewing the case of Michael Marsh, convicted and sentenced to death for the killings of Marry Ane and Marry Elizabeth Pusch, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty statute was unconstitutional because of its requirement that, when a jury at the sentencing hearing finds aggravating and mitigating factors to be equal, they must choose death. The Kansas Court’s decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2006. Marsh was to receive a new trial, but in April 2009 he reached a plea agreement with Sedgwick County prosecutors and was sentenced to life in prison.

 

The case of another individual sentenced to death in Kansas, that of Stanley Elms, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Regina Gray in 1998 (Sedgwick County), was settled in November 2004. Elms had been on death row since his conviction, and his sentence was also affected by the Kleypas decision. His attorneys struck a deal with the Sedgwick County district attorney’s office, which agreed to drop the death penalty for Elms if he would not pursue an appeal accusing prosecutors of misconduct during the case. On November 20, 2004, Elms was sentenced in Sedgwick County District Court to a hard 40 sentence— life in prison with no possibility of parole for 40 years.

 

Gavin Scott was convicted in Sedgwick County of the murders of Doug and Beth Brittain in 1996. His death sentence was overturned in May 2008 by the Kansas Supreme Court; one of the reasons cited was errant instructions given by the judge to the jury during the penalty phase of his trial. In March 2010 he and his attorneys reached a plea agreement giving him two consecutive life sentences; he will be eligible for parole in approximately 85 years. Another man convicted in these two murders received two consecutive life sentences in his original trial.

Appeals continue related to all of the cases. Issues argued in Kleypas and Marsh will no doubt continue to affect the cases of others sentenced to death in Kansas.

 

*Administrative segregation, which is used for other prisoners as a disciplinary measure, is essentially solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. One hour a day, the prisoners are allowed out of their cells for exercise or to take a shower. When they are out of their cells for exercise, the exercise is done alone in a small wire-enclosed outdoor space. For meetings with their families or lawyers, death-sentenced prisoners are behind glass and tightly shackled. The death-sentenced prisoners are kept separate from each other as well. Until September 2001 they could converse with each other from their cells, but that is no longer possible.