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Monday, July 7, 2014

Rader's term length open to question -- in 85 years

By Hurst Laviana
The Wichita Eagle

When Dennis Rader was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms in prison last month, he instantly joined the ranks of a handful of Kansas prison inmates serving longer-than-life sentences.

But when prosecutors trotted out the official figure — 175 years without the possibility of parole — it didn't quite become the longest sentence ever imposed in Kansas.

The Kansas Department of Corrections lists a parole eligibility date for Rader of Feb. 26, 2180 — 175 years from the date of his arrest.

But several defense lawyers say that an argument could be made that Rader's sentence is, at most, life without parole for 85 years.

During the proceedings in the Rader case, prosecutors and defense lawyers were all required to follow laws that were in effect at the time the crimes occurred.

Rader pleaded guilty to murdering seven people in the 1970s, when state law said inmates serving life sentences got to see the parole board after 15 years.

Two of Rader's murders were committed in the 1980s, when the law said consecutive life sentences required 15 years for each murder.

Rader's last murder was committed in 1991, after the state's Hard 40 law had taken effect. That law said inmates who committed the most heinous murders would have to wait 40 years before seeing a parole board.

Wichita lawyer Ernie Tousley is among those who question the 175-year figure.

"Everybody's talking about this 175 years — you know, 15 for every murder and then the Hard 40," he said. "It is my understanding that no matter what you got (under the old system) you got to see the parole board in 15 years."

Deputy District Attorney Kim Parker stopped short of endorsing the 85-year figure, but she conceded that Rader's lawyers conceivably could argue for a shorter sentence. For practical matters, Parker said, the issue won't come up for 85 years, long after everyone involved in the case has died.

District Judge Greg Waller, who sentenced Rader to 10 consecutive life terms, said he recalled the days when a life sentence meant seeing the parole board after 15 years. But he said he didn't profess to be an expert on parole laws, so he didn't know where Rader's parole eligibility date should be set.

Parker said she's not sure how the Kansas Parole Board would interpret the 1970s law.

"It's extremely convoluted because the law that governed parole from 1974 to 1977 did not even address consecutive sentences," she said.

Parker said Kansas appellate courts haven't ever ruled in a case involving consecutive life sentences imposed in the 1970s.

"There aren't any court cases that say, 'yes, you have to do it' or 'no, you don't have to do it.' "

If the issue were to come up today, Parker said, she would argue that it would be up to the Kansas Parole Board to determine a parole eligibility date for Rader.

"The statute only talks about a life sentence," she said. "It does not talk at all about more than one life sentence."

Even if Rader's 175-year minimum stands up, his sentence would remain five years shorter than that imposed on Arnold Ruebke Jr. in 1986 for killing three people.

Ruebke received 12 consecutive life terms for the Oct. 29, 1984, shotgun slayings in Reno County of 2-year-old twins James and Andrew Vogelsang and their 18-year-old baby sitter, Tammy Mooney.

That effectively gave Ruebke, who is 39 and being held in the Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, Okla., a sentence of life without parole for 180 years.

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