TOPEKA — A man sentenced to die for the killings of a central Kansas couple should receive a new trial because a cousin involved in the crime reneged on a plea agreement that allowed him to avoid the death penalty, an attorney told the state’s highest court Friday.
The Kansas Supreme Court heard the appeal of Sidney Gleason, convicted of capital murder and other crimes in the deaths of Miki Martinez and boyfriend Darren Wornkey in February 2004. Gleason’s attorneys question whether it’s fair for him to face death by lethal injection when, according to the evidence, his cousin, Damien Thompson, strangled and shot Martinez while Gleason watched.
Thompson pleaded guilty to a single charge of first-degree murder for Martinez’s death and agreed to testify against Gleason in a deal to avoid a possible death sentence. Thompson testified at a preliminary hearing but refused to testify at Gleason’s trial, after being sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
The murders occurred days after Gleason and Thompson, both now 33, were involved in the robbery and stabbing of a 76-year-old man. Martinez was with them, and prosecutors contend Gleason and Thompson worried about what she would tell police, planned to kill her and were ready to kill Wornkey if he got in their way.
Capital appellate defender Sarah Ellen Johnson said Gleason had no chance during his trial to confront Thompson directly, while prosecutors had a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent read Thompson’s testimony from the earlier hearing. She said prosecutors had built up Thompson’s importance in opening statements, making the situation particularly unfair to Gleason.
“It’s simply too big a curve ball – a wrench – to throw into the middle of a capital murder trial,” Johnson told the justices.
But Kristafer Ailslieger, the state’s deputy solicitor general, said the defense questioned Thompson extensively during the preliminary hearing. He said prosecutors hadn’t anticipated that Thompson would refuse to testify at trial.
“I don’t think there was any sandbagging by the state,” Ailslieger said.
Ailslieger couldn’t explain why prosecutors didn’t insist on having Thompson sentenced after Gleason’s trial, so the plea agreement could be revoked if he reneged. The attorney general’s office, involved in the prosecutions, has changed hands three times since Gleason’s trial in 2006.
“It’s probably not the best strategy,” Ailslieger said.
Gleason is among eight men facing execution in Kansas. The state hasn’t executed anyone since reinstating capital punishment in 1994 and the justices have yet to clear the way for any executions. In August, they ordered a new trial for Scott Cheever, convicted of capital murder for the 2007 shooting of Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels.
A ruling in Gleason’s case isn’t expected for months.
According to authorities, Gleason and Thompson went to confront Martinez days after the earlier robbery and found Wornkey, 24, and Martinez, 19, sitting in a Jeep outside the home they shared. Prosecutors have said Gleason walked up to the Jeep and shot Wornkey multiple times.
Gleason and Thompson then took Martinez to a rural area, where Thompson strangled and shot her.
Kansas law allows a death sentence for two or more murders occurring in the same series of events, and it generally holds accomplices as accountable for crimes as the person who actually commits them.
Gleason’s attorneys have raised two dozen legal issues, including whether Gleason knew Thompson intended to kill Martinez when they left the site of Wornkey’s shooting.
Johnson suggested that neither prosecutors nor Barton County District Judge Hannelore Kitts pushed Thompson hard enough to testify at trial before the judge declared that the witness wasn’t available.
Several justices appeared skeptical of that argument, noting that an attorney for Thompson was summoned from out of town to pressure him. But Justice Eric Rosen also expressed doubt that Gleason’s right to confront an accuser was satisfied because Thompson was questioned during the preliminary hearing.
“It’s hard not to conclude that it didn’t make a difference,” Rosen said. “The heightened scrutiny that we have in a capital case causes me more concern.”