AG, Prosecutors Want Lawmakers To Make Quick Fix To 'Hard 50'

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Prosecutors say victims of the most heinous murders are caught in the middle of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and a state law that allows the killers to be sentenced to 50 years in prison before they're eligible for parole.

Right now, a judge determines if the crime qualifies for the "Hard 50" sentence. But the high court ruled in June that juries must make that determination.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt was joined by prosecutors from the state's four most populous counties Thursday - Shawnee, Sedgwick, Wyandotte and Johnson - in calling for lawmakers to make an immediate fix to the law. Schmidt sent Gov. Sam Brownback a letter Wednesday asking him to call the legislature back into special session so they can take action.

"What the Supreme Court did in June was essentially open a loophole," Schmidt said. "That loophole gets larger with every week that passes."

Schmidt says his office has identified at least two dozen cases whose sentences could be impacted. The four prosecutors in attendance alone had 20 more pending. Schmidt says that's not considering crimes that might happen before lawmakers are scheduled to return in January.

Schmidt says the longer the state goes in ending the period of uncertainty, the great number of cases that will become caught up in it.

In Shawnee County, the Hard 50 has been handed down in cases including Dana Chandler for the murders of her ex-husband Michael Sisco and his fiance Karen Harkness, and Christopher Hall in the 2006 killing and burning of 15-year-old Nacole Winter.

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor says the Hard 50 is a vital tool in helping families heal before having to face parole hearings. He says 50 year is a long time in a person's life and maturity. A child whose parents were killed, for example, would have time to process the trauma before having to face the parole process.

Schmidt says the fix would involve creating a process where, much like with the death penalty law, juries would sit for a second penalty phase to consider aggravating factors of a crime. While the Supreme Court ruling will likely open the door to defendants already serving a Hard 50 to appeal their sentence, Schmidt says he believes, with a fix, the current sentences would be upheld. He says courts have allowed retroactive application of a criminal law when it comes to procedures.

"We're asking the legislature to change the procedure - not the substance of the law - but the procedure by which the hard 50 may be imposed," he said.

A special session will likely cost $35,000 to $40,000 a day. Schmidt says he believes lawmakers could do the work needed in just a couple days. He acknowledges the decision on whether call a special session is a balance between money and the families and communities caught in the middle.

"From my perspective," he said, "I think the balance ought to tip in favor of the public safety implications."

Gov. Brownback's office says it will make a decision soon on whether to call a special session. If it happens, it would likely be in September.

The legislature's last special session was in 2005. It was called following a Kansas Supreme Court ruling on funding K-12 public education.