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Supreme Court reverses 2 murder convictions; victim's son stunned

Published: Apr. 6, 2018 at 10:03 AM CDT
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Chad Harkness, the son of 2002 slaying victim Karen Harkness, was stunned when he learned the Kansas Supreme Court had overturned the convictions of the woman charged in his mother’s cold-case killing.

In 2012, Dana Lynn Chandler was convicted in the killings of her ex-husband, Mike Sisco, and his fiancée, Karen Harkness, who is Chad’s mother. Chandler and Sisco were divorced.

Within hours of the court ruling, Chad Harkness said he was upset and dumbfounded by the decision.

“Honestly I’m shocked,” Chad Harkness said. “I did not expect this at all.”

On Friday afternoon, Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay was to conduct a conference call to survivors of Sisco and Karen Harkness to tell them of the ruling.

Karen Harkness, 53 and Mike Sisco, 47, were fatally shot in 2002, and Chandler was convicted in 2012.

“It took 10 years to get the convictions,” Chad Harkness said. The Friday ruling “doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t seem fair.” Harkness, an insurance agent, lives in Topeka.

The Supreme Court found that prosecutor Jacqie Spradling falsely told jurors that a nonexistent protection-from-abuse order filed by Sisco against Chandler existed in her divorce case, the court said.

Spradling’s assertion of the PFA order triggered the reversal of the two murder convictions, Justice Dan Biles wrote.

The unanimous court decision said Chandler prosecuted the false claim as a judicial endorsement for its theory that Chandler was dangerous.

“Taken as a whole, 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,” Biles wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Adam Stolte, an Overland Park attorney representing Chandler in her appeal, declined to comment on the ruling, other than saying the “desire-to-win” quote summed it up.

On Friday, Spradling declined to comment about the ruling.

At another point in the ruling, Biles said that in a criminal case, the prosecutor’s obligation is to “vigorously, but properly, champion to bring about a just conviction – not merely a win. When they fail, our system fails, and the safeguards protecting the constitutional right to a fair trial strain to the breaking point. That is what happened in this case.”

Kagay said Friday he was reviewing the ruling and hadn’t decided whether to re-try Chandler or follow other options, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which isn’t likely.

Kagay, who doesn’t have a specific deadline to decide what to do, said he would take a deliberative and “completely fresh look” at the evidence in light of the court’s ruling, then make a decision.

The earliest decision would be made after prosecutors receive the mandate, the official notification of the Supreme Court’s ruling. That will arrive in no more than 30 days after Friday.

Once the mandate arrives, the district attorney has 150 days to commence the re-trial. According to Kansas law, the district attorney’s office would have 150 days to start the re-trial of Chandler or release her.

On Friday, Chandler remained incarcerated in the Topeka Correctional Facility, which houses only female inmates, said Samir Arif, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

In March 2012, a Shawnee County District Court jury convicted Chandler of two counts of premeditated first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Sisco and Harkness.

Jurors deliberated 83 minutes before they signaled they had a verdict.

On July 7, 2002, the victims were shot, each at least five times, in the Harkness far west Topeka residence they shared, and their bodies were discovered by members of their families. Harkness was lying on a bed, and Sisco was wedged between a wall and the bed.

In July 2011, Chandler was arrested in a fast-food restaurant parking lot in Duncan, Okla., by officers from Shawnee County and Oklahoma. Duncan is about 400 miles southwest of Topeka.

In August 2012 – 10 years after the slayings and following a weeks-long jury trial – Chandler was sentenced to two hard-50 prison terms, one term for each conviction.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted prosecutors relied on limited circumstantial evidence including inconsistent statements made by Chandler about her whereabouts at the time of the murders, her gas purchases at that time, her obsessive behavior toward Sisco and Harkness, and two jailhouse phone conversations that prosecutors contended were incriminating.

No physical evidence linked Chandler, who lived in Denver, to the crime, the court ruling said.