Two months before the Nov. 2 election, Kansas Attorney General Steve Six is prosecuting his third high-profile murder case since he took office.
On Tuesday, Six, a Democrat running for election after being appointed in 2008, filed capital murder and sodomy charges against Adam Longoria in the death of 14-year-old Alicia DeBolt of Great Bend. An asphalt plant employee found the cheerleader's burned body 2 1/2 days after she got into a vehicle outside her home.
Six said his decision to personally take on the case, rather than have a deputy lead the prosecution, fits with his record of prosecuting high-profile cases that come through his office. He said the direct involvement motivates his staff and makes him more informed.
His Republican opponent, state Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt of Independence, said he doubted that he would prosecute a criminal case himself as attorney general but added, "You don't want to say never, because you don't know what circumstances might arise."
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Schmidt said his approach would be to hire "professional, seasoned" prosecutors "and then make sure they do their jobs." That was essentially the way the office operated when he served as an assistant attorney general under Carla Stovall, Schmidt said.
Still, Schmidt said, "Kansas only has one attorney general at a time, and I'm not willing to second-guess or critique his handling of individual criminal cases. I believe strongly that criminal prosecution should never become a political back and forth."
There is recent precedent for Six's prosecution of a key case: In 2007, former Attorney General Paul Morrison — before he resigned over an extramarital affair — prosecuted part of the capital murder case against Justin Thurber in Arkansas City. After Morrison left, a staff attorney obtained a capital murder conviction against Thurber in the killing Cowley College student Jodi Sanderholm.
A 2007 article in the Kansas City Star said that Morrison's decision to prosecute the case himself marked the first such action by an attorney general in almost 30 years. Bob Stephan, the attorney general from 1979 to 1995, was quoted saying that he didn't try a criminal case during his terms. Stephan called Morrison's move unusual because the position had been administrative. Still, Stephan said there was no reason an attorney general shouldn't take on a criminal case occasionally.
The A.G.' s position is multifaceted. The attorney general is the state's chief law enforcement officer. On a daily basis, the attorney general manages about 125 people, including about 45 attorneys. The office defends the state against lawsuits and handles every legal matter: murder cases, consumer protection, water rights, and more. The attorney general also oversees the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
The office often assists small jurisdictions around the state that lack the expertise and resources needed to investigate and prosecute complicated murder cases.
In the current fiscal year, the office has filed eight homicide cases, including the Great Bend case. The office now has five open capital murder cases, said attorney general's spokesman Gavin Young.
If convicted of capital murder, a defendant can face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Regarding his direct involvement in some murder cases, Six said that it is "important to me to lead by example."
Morrison, a longtime Johnson County prosecutor before he became attorney general, said the same thing in an opinion column in 2007: "I've always thought that the best way to lead is by example. If I expect my attorneys to try hard cases and win, I better be willing to walk the walk as well."
Six said that prosecuting cases allows him to work directly with investigators and to see firsthand the challenges they face.
After Six became attorney general, he prosecuted the first murder case that came to his office, from Osborne County, in north-central Kansas.
Next, he prosecuted Israel Mireles, sentenced to life without parole for the murder of Emily Sander, an 18-year-old Butler Community College student.
"Then this horrible tragedy occurred" in Great Bend, Six said.
"I feel strongly about protecting kids and children... it was important to me."
Six, a former Douglas County district judge who lives in Lawrence, is trailing Schmidt, according to a SurveyUSA poll conducted last month for KWCH-Channel 12. Schmidt had 54 percent to 24 percent for Six, the poll found.
Young, Six's spokesman, said "private polling on both sides of this race indicates a much closer margin."
Schmidt served as legal counsel for Gov. Bill Graves and as an assistant attorney general for Stovall. He has not prosecuted a murder case, but neither had Six before he became attorney general, Schmidt said.
Both candidates say they have extensive and well-rounded legal experience.
It's difficult to see any downside for Six in prosecuting the Great Bend case, with all the media attention it continues to draw, said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University.
After every court hearing, Six has spoken to reporters gathered in Great Bend from across the region. For days now, his comments have been prominent in stories across the media spectrum.
Aistrup saw another positive for Six: "This is the kind of thing that could show he is... willing to step up to the plate for these major capital cases."
If there is a political risk, it is that some voters could perceive Six's role in the Great Bend case as him trying to gain attention during an election season.
Still, with Six behind in the poll, he needs publicity, Aistrup said.
Six said one thing is a virtual certainty: The Great Bend case, because of the complexity surrounding the capital murder charge, will not go to trial until after the next attorney general's term begins in January.