Kansas prosecutor Jacqie Spradling disbarred for "intolerable acts of deception" in double murder case

  • In US
  • 2022-05-21 01:42:00Z
  • By CBS News

The Kansas Supreme Court Friday disbarred a prosecutor who it said engaged in "a serious pattern of grossly unethical misconduct" during a 2012 trial that led to a woman being sentenced to life in prison for the murders of her ex-husband and his fiancee.

Prosecutor Jacqie Spradling "repeatedly made arguments to the jury that lacked any evidentiary support, intentionally lied to this court in her briefs and in oral arguments, and made false statements during the disciplinary investigation," the court wrote in its opinion Friday.

Spradling can no longer practice law in Kansas. An attorney for Spradling did not immediately respond to a request for comment. One justice dissented, calling Spradling one of the most skilled, successful, and expert trial attorneys in this state," though acknowledging that she made "mistakes" that were "serious and costly."

It's been 20 years since Kansas couple Mike Sisco and Karen Harkness were found gunned down in Harkness' Topeka home. In August, for the second time, Sisco's ex-wife Dana Chandler will be tried for the double murder.

Sisco, 47, and his fiancee, Harkness, 53, were each shot multiple times with a 9 mm weapon on July 7, 2002. Chandler, now 62, was questioned in the immediate aftermath, but wasn't charged at first.

For the next nine years the case received frequent publicity as investigators sought information from the public. "48 Hours" broadcast the show "Haunted" in October 2009, which looked at the cold case, including a 2007 report commissioned by law enforcement that concluded that Chandler was, in the view of law enforcement, the "primary suspect."

A detective told CBS' "48 Hours" in 2009 that investigators ruled out robbery as a motive early on, noting that Sisco had "a fairly substantial amount of cash in (his) pockets" when his body was found, money won that night at a nearby casino. Harkness was found wearing a diamond bracelet, a Rolex watch and a gold ring, according to court records.

Instead, law enforcement focused on family members and the people who knew the victims, ultimately zeroing in on Chandler.

She was arrested and entered not guilty pleas to two counts of first-degree murder in 2011. A year later, after a trial in which her children testified against her, a Shawnee County jury convicted her on both counts and she was sentenced to life in prison. "48 Hours" broadcast a second show, "My Dad's Killer," in September 2012, reporting on the case and Chandler's trial and conviction.

The March 2012 trial included 10 days of testimony, 80 witnesses and nearly 900 exhibits, "yet despite this testimonial and documentary bulk, the State's case relied on limited circumstantial evidence," the Kansas Supreme Court would later write in ruling on her appeal  from her conviction.

The evidence presented by prosecutor Jacqie Spradling wasn't just circumstantial. In at least one instance, it was "made-up" and "misleading," according to the Kansas Supreme Court, which in 2018 overturned Chandler's conviction.

In Spradling's closing arguments she asked the jury, "How else do we know the defendant is guilty? Mike got a protection from abuse, a court order."

Spradling continued: "He applied and said, 'Hey, judge, please order this woman to stay away from me and the judge agreed. And in 1998, meaning one year after he filed for the divorce, he was continuing to have problems with the defendant not leaving him alone. So he got a court order saying she has to stay away. The protection from abuse order did not stop the defendant, though."

In fact, the court said in its 2018 opinion, no such order of protection was in the trial record.

The Kansas Supreme Court found other "errors" by the prosecutor, but concluded that the prosecution's false claim about a protection order was itself enough to overturn the conviction, because it "conveyed serious adverse impressions to the jury."

"They improperly declared that a judge independently reviewed Chandler's behavior and concluded she was dangerous enough to justify a court order for Mike's protection. They also told the jury Chandler was so out of control that she violated that court order," the Kansas Supreme Court wrote then.

But the court did not dismiss the case outright and ruled instead that there was sufficient evidence to retry Chandler.  It held that she "had motive and opportunity and engaged in suspicious behavior after the murders."

It found she "exhibited obsession" with Sisco and Harkness, "'increasing' during the time leading up to the murders, as there was evidence it escalated from harassing, following, and telephone calls to uninvited entry into Mike's home."  "As to opportunity," the court observed, her "whereabouts were unconfirmed" at the time of the murders. And "her inconsistent statements also constitute suspicious post-murder conduct demonstrating consciousness of guilt," the court found.

In 2021, a state disciplinary board concluded that Spradling had taken a "win-at-all-costs" approach to Chandler's and one other case. It recommended that she be disbarred and that her law license be permanently suspended.  Spradling's appeal of that decision ended in today's disbarment by the Kansas Supreme Court.

After Chandler's conviction was overturned, she was transferred from a state prison to the Shawnee County jail, where she has remained since 2018 awaiting her new trial.

In the years since, she has tried unsuccessfully to get the charges against her tossed or the trial moved to a different county.

One motion to dismiss filed by Chandler sought to highlight alternative suspects, including a neighbor who allegedly used a check stolen from Harkness' home. That motion was denied.

In another unsuccessful motion to dismiss, on the grounds of "misuse of the media," Chandler accused investigators of plotting to use "48 Hours" and coverage from other media outlets "to gain a tactical advantage for prosecution."

In the motion, she cited an internal 2003 detective's memo, "floating the idea of using the media to develop leads in the crime," as well as a 2009 request by investigators to have a DNA test expedited in the hopes that it could be included in a "48 Hours" episode.

After the first "48 Hours" show aired, detectives cited it in an effort to get one of Chandler's relatives to cooperate, a transcript of the interrogation shows. After her conviction was overturned, Chandler tried unsuccessfully several times to subpoena a "48 Hours" producer and a correspondent, before eventually withdrawing her request to do so.

The motion also cited NBC and Discovery: ID coverage of her case, as well as extensive local newspaper coverage.

A filing by attorneys seeking a change of venue for Chandler's trial sought to highlight the impact of media coverage in Shawnee County, where her upcoming trial will take place.

A research firm hired by her attorneys conducted a survey in Shawnee and nearby Johnson County. Of 302 people in Shawnee surveyed, 200 recognized the case, and 99 said they believed Chandler to be guilty. In Johnson County, just 25 out of 302 people surveyed recognized the case, with five people believing Chandler was guilty. Their request to move the trial location was denied.

Chandler, who maintains her innocence, is being held in jail on $1,000,000 bond. She has asked repeatedly for a reduction in that amount but those requests have been denied. Her jury trial is scheduled to begin on Aug. 1.

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