A Sedgwick County judge imposed a Hard 50 prison sentence Thursday on a man who was convicted in the strangulation death of a Wichita woman in 2011 while on parole for murdering a woman in Lawrence more than two decades earlier.
The sentence came less than a month after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that many thought had invalidated the state’s Hard 50 law. The ruling has prompted the Kansas Legislature to meet in a special session in September to rewrite the Hard 50 law so that it complies with the Supreme Court ruling.
The ruling said in part that any element of a crime that can increase a prison sentence must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.
In imposing the sentence against Tyrone Walker, District Judge Joseph Bribiesca said the Supreme Court ruling did not apply in Walker’s case.
In Walker’s trial, Bribiesca said, the defense stipulated to the fact that Walker had been convicted of second-degree murder in Douglas County. He said Walker signed the stipulation, which was read to the jury.
He said the conviction “was not an issue that needed to be presented and proven to a jury.”
The Kansas Appellate Defender Office will have 14 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling.
Kansas’ Hard 50 law says a judge must weigh aggravating and mitigating factors before deciding whether to impose a Hard 50 sentence. The law lists several aggravating factors, which include a prior conviction for a crime that caused death.
In a Thursday afternoon news conference, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said he thinks “a conviction in a prior case satisfies the requirements” of the Supreme Court ruling.
Walker was convicted in Douglas County of second-degree murder in the death of Tamara Baker, 25, who was reported missing on Oct. 31, 1989. Her body was found six months later in a wooded area of Lawrence. Walker was sentenced to 12 years to life in prison on that charge and was paroled to Wichita in February 2011.
The body of Janis Sanders, 44, was found between an abandoned house and a small business in the 1100 block of South Washington on June 4, 2011. Prosecutors said Walker’s DNA was found under Sanders’ fingernails and on the shoestrings that were used to strangle her.
Bennett said the “unique circumstances” in Walker’s case – two murder convictions – prompted him to move forward with seeking a Hard 50 sentence. He added that he plans to ask for that same sentence in a pending court case.
“We’re going to protect the citizens with a Hard 50 sentence when it’s necessary,” he said. “And in this (Walker’s) case, we believe certainly that it was.”
Thursday in court, Walker spoke briefly before he was sentenced.
“I maintain my innocence,” he said.
Among those urging Bribiesca to impose the maximum sentence possible was Yvonne Gather, Sanders’ sister.
“The sudden loss of my sister has changed all of our lives forever,” she said. “This man should not have a third chance.”
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle