Vat Khamvongsa, 24, said he was tagging along with a childhood friend on Aug. 4, 2012, when he found himself among a group of Asian Boy gang members. They forced their way into a home at 830 S. Erie, and one of them cut Pheng Xiong’s throat. Khamvongsa was charged with first-degree murder.
Emmalynn Spencer, 18, spent the night of March 30, 2013, with four other young adults partying in Old Town. Early the next morning they drove to a field southeast of Wichita where one of them shot former South High football player Jordan Turner to death. Spencer was arrested and released without being charged.
Last year prosecutors filed charges in 11 homicide cases involving multiple murder suspects – as many as in the previous three years combined – and many of those cases are now working their way through the court system. Defendants in two of those cases are scheduled to stand trial this week.
Among the first issues to be resolved in a multiple-suspect case is determining the charges. In a court system largely designed for one-suspect cases, the multiple-defendant cases present unique challenges for a variety of participants, from the deputies keeping the defendants separated in jail to the victim-witness coordinators.
“In a four-defendant case, a witness might get 20 or 30 subpoenas – even more,” said retired District Judge Clark Owens. “All kinds of issues come up when you get multiple defendants. If you try them all together, then you’ve got to make room in the courtroom for that many defendants and that many lawyers. Your jury selection doubles with two defendants and triples with three.”
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett did not want to discuss specifics of the charging decisions in the Khamvongsa and Spencer cases. But in general, he said, a criminal charge cannot be based solely on a person’s presence at a crime scene. He said a slight change in the facts can make a difference.
“Bottom line: Each charging decision in each case depends on the facts and the evidence,” he said.
Bennett said multiple-defendant cases can be especially hard on victims and witnesses, who may be subjected to cross-examination by several defense lawyers when they come to court, or who may have to come to court several times to testify. He said that can cause problems for prosecutors.
“Even the best witness will use different words or explain what they saw or heard in some slightly different way each time they testify,” he said. “This gives the later attorneys more fuel for cross-examination.”
In Sedgwick County District Court, defendants in multiple-defendant cases filed since 2010 have not fared well. Of the 21 defendants who have gone to trial, 18 were convicted of first-degree murder, two were convicted of second-degree murder and one was acquitted.
Of the rest, 19 settled their cases through plea bargains, which typically saw them pleading guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder. One case was dismissed by prosecutors and five of the suspects were charged in juvenile court.
Cases against two dozen of the defendants are now pending. The group includes four defendants who are charged with capital murder in the Nov. 15 shooting deaths of Melissa and Roger Bluml of Valley Center.
Most of the defendants who were charged with murder never actually killed anyone – at least not in the literal sense. They were charged with aiding and abetting a killer, or with taking part in an inherently dangerous felony that resulted in someone’s death.
Defense lawyer Richard Ney said aiding and abetting requires the defendant to have the same intention as the primary suspect.
“It’s basically guilt by association” he said. “Aiding and abetting requires that the defendants have the same intent.”
The felony murder law, by contrast, requires no intent, Ney said. It only requires that a person be committing an inherently dangerous felony that results in a death. The Kansas Legislature has developed a list of inherently dangerous felonies that includes arson, kidnapping, aggravated burglary and the distribution of drugs.
Owens said the felony murder law may seem harsh at times, but serves a needed legal purpose. If four hooded bandits go into a liquor store and one of them kills the clerk, he said, it’s possible that none of the witnesses will be able to positively identify the shooter. Under the felony murder law, he said, a positive identification isn’t needed to convict all four suspects of the clerk’s murder.
One person who thinks that law is misapplied is Jennifer Winn, who decided to run for Kansas governor after her son was accused of murder.
Kyler Carriker was one of six people charged in the April 19, 2013, death of Ronald Betts, who was shot to death during a drug transaction at 446 N. Emporia when one of three would-be buyers pulled out a gun and began firing. Carriker, who arranged the deal, was seriously wounded.
“He introduced someone to Ronald Betts, and because of that he needs to go to prison for 25 years?” Winn asked.
She said the case has the potential to send all six defendants to prison for life.
“Let me get this straight. Six people can go to prison for a total of 200 years for one person’s actions? I don’t know how it got to this level.”
Carriker is scheduled to stand trial in May.
In trials and court hearings to date, witnesses have offered no evidence that suggests that Khamvongsa or Spencer were part of any murder plot. But there are differences in their cases.
Testimony showed that the three people charged with murder in Turner’s death – Ebony Nguyen, Kristopher Wright and Eric Jackson – all discussed plans to kill Turner before Wright actually shot him. There was no evidence that Spencer took part in the conversations.
There was evidence that Khamvongsa was under the influence of alcohol and was looking for trouble when he helped his co-defendants – Jerry Thach and Caesar Louis – break into the victim’s house. A fourth suspect, who used the nickname “Joker,” has not been arrested.
The suspects in that case could have been charged with felony murder – committing an aggravated burglary that resulted in someone’s death – but they were instead charged with premeditated first-degree murder. Both crimes carry life sentences.
Khamvongsa pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and agreed to testify against his co-defendants. He is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.
Khamvongsa’s lawyer, Brad Sylvester, said in court papers that his client never met Louis or Joker until the night the murder happened.
“He was not part of the gang they were in, and he was not trying to join the gang.” he said.
Sylvester said his client heard the other men talking about seeking revenge from Xiong after an earlier disagreement at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. When he helped break into the victim’s home, he said, he was expecting a fight.
“He did not contemplate that there would be a murder, thinking only that this was going to be some sort of minor confrontation, and possibly being involved with beating up the victim,” Sylvester wrote.
Sylvester said his client was shocked when one of the men asked the victim if he had any last words before cutting his throat.
“Vat was sickened and somewhat in shock, because he could hardly believe what was happening,“ Sylvester said.
He said Khamvongsa later went to police and told them the whole story.
“Basically, without Vat, this case would still remain unsolved,” he said. “No one would be brought to justice, and there would be no closure for the victim’s family.”
One of the defendants scheduled to stand trial this week is Jason A. Jones, one of three defendants charged with murder in the meth-injection death of Shawn Lindsey, whose body was found near K-96 and Hillside on Jan. 16, 2013. The other is Kyle Carter, one of two defendants is charged in the death of Carl Cooper, who was stabbed to death on Sept. 8, 2013, after breaking into a car near College Hill Park.