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Cheever case marks fourth time court has invalidated a Kansas death sentence

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, August 25, 2012, at 7:52 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, at 10:21 a.m.

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Sentenced to death in Kansas

To date, Kansas juries have sentenced 13 defendants to death. They are listed here chronologically in order of their crimes.

• Gary Kleypas: Convicted in Crawford County of the March 30, 1996, killing of Pittsburg State University student Carrie Williams. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned his sentence in 2001, but another jury resentenced him to death in 2008.

• Gavin Scott: Convicted in Sedgwick County of the Sept. 13, 1996, shooting deaths of Doug and Beth Brittain in their rural Goddard home. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned Scott’s death sentence, and he was resentenced to two life prison terms after reaching a plea-agreement with prosecutors.

• Michael Marsh: Convicted in Sedgwick County of shooting and killing Marry Ane Pusch on June 17, 1997, and setting a fire that killed her 18-month-old daughter. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned Marsh’s capital murder conviction, and he was sentenced to life in prison after reaching a plea-agreement with prosecutors.

• Stanley Elms: Convicted in Sedgwick County of the May 1998 rape and murder of his neighbor, Regina Gray. He was resentenced to life in prison in November 2004 after reaching a plea-agreement in which he agreed to drop his appeal if prosecutors would take the death penalty off the table.

• John Robinson: Convicted in Johnson County of murdering three women, including two whose bodies were found stuffed into barrels near his rural home in June 2000. He also pleaded guilty in Missouri to five killings, receiving sentences of life without parole for each.

• Jonathan and Reginald Carr: convicted in Sedgwick County of killing Jason Befort, Brad Heyka, Aaron Sander and Heather Muller in a northeast Wichita soccer field on Dec. 15, 2000. Reginald Carr also was convicted in the death of Ann Walenta.

• Douglas Belt: Convicted in Sedgwick County of sexually assaulting and decapitating Lucille Gallegos on June 25, 2002, in a west Wichita apartment.

• Phillip Cheatham: Convicted in Shawnee County of the December 2003 shooting deaths of two women and the wounding of a third.

• Sidney Gleason: Convicted in Barton County of taking part in the Feb. 24, 2004, killing of a Great Bend couple. Prosecutors said Gleason was afraid that one of the victims might tell police about his previous crimes.

• Scott Cheever: Sentenced to death for the J anuary 2005 shooting of Sheriff Matt Samuels at a home near Virgil. His conviction was overturned Friday by the Kansas Supreme Court.

• Justin Thurber: Convicted in Cowley County of the January 2007 abduction, sexual assault and killing of 19-year-old college student Jodi Sanderholm.

• James Kraig Kahler: Convicted in November 2009 in Osage County of the fatal shootings of his estranged wife, their two daughters and his wife’s grandmother.

When the Kansas Supreme Court overturned the capital murder conviction of Scott Cheever on Friday, it marked the fourth time in four tries that the state’s highest court has invalidated a Kansas death sentence.

The decision was quickly heralded by death penalty opponents.

“This case is another example of just how flawed the Kansas death penalty is,” officials with the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty said in a news release. “We can’t eliminate the possibility of error. It’s time for Kansas to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.”

But local prosecutors said Saturday that the Cheever ruling is likely to have no impact on the state’s death penalty law or on the appeals of two Sedgwick County death penalty cases that have yet to be considered by Kansas Supreme Court.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, who is finishing her sixth term in office but is not seeking re-election, said she doesn’t expect the appeals of Douglas Belt and Jonathan and Reginald Carr to be resolved before she leaves office in January. But she said she is confident that both cases will survive a test by the state Supreme Court.

“I am optimistic on the Belt case; I’m also optimistic on State v. Carr,” she said. “We worked long and hard on those cases to make sure there were no problems.”

Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett, who will take over for Foulston in January, said the Cheever decision arose from an evidentiary problem that had nothing to do with the death penalty law.

“As I understand the ruling, it had nothing to do with the death penalty or the manner in which it was applied,” he said. “It could have happened in any murder trail.”

The court said in its ruling that prosecutors in the Cheever case improperly allowed a witness to testify about the results of a mental exam that Cheever was required by a federal judge to take.

“It was an error by the prosecutors who tried the case,” Foulston said. “I didn’t see anything in that case that would lead me to believe that the court did anything other than apply the law correctly.”

Although the Supreme Court has now reversed four death-penalty convictions, Bennett said it also has upheld several capital murder convictions that did not result in a death sentence. He said the court recently upheld the convictions of Elgin Ray Robinson Jr. and Ted Burnett, who both escaped death sentences after they were convicted of capital murder in the June 9, 2006, strangulation death of 14-year-old Chelsea Brooks.

Donna Schneweis of Topeka, who issued the news release on behalf of the Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said the Cheever ruling, if nothing else, shows that the courts are not perfect.

“The reality is that in Kansas, when a life is on the line, courts are making mistakes,” she said.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6567 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com.

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