Crime & Courts

Oral arguments set in appeal in murder of Vashti Seacat

Brett Seacat listens to testimony and a video recording of his interrogation in Kingman County District Court on May 28, 2013. He was later found guilty of the murder of his wife, Vashti, in 2011.
Brett Seacat listens to testimony and a video recording of his interrogation in Kingman County District Court on May 28, 2013. He was later found guilty of the murder of his wife, Vashti, in 2011. File photo

It has been more than two years since a former law enforcement officer stood before a Kingman County jury and claimed he didn’t shoot his wife and then burn his family’s home to cover up a killing that prosecutors said was driven by anger over divorce.

In June 2013, Brett Seacat claimed that the high school sweetheart he later married suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies. He told jurors that 34-year-old Vashti Seacat shot herself and set her bedroom ablaze early on April 30, 2011, while their two young sons slept down the hall.

But jurors didn’t believe him. They instead found the police instructor and former Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, aggravated arson and two counts of aggravated child endangerment. And a judge sent him to prison for life.

Next month, Seacat’s claims will again be considered in court – this time by Kansas Supreme Court justices with the power to overturn his convictions.

Attorneys will give oral arguments in Seacat’s appeal Sept. 17 in Topeka. The date was announced last month.

In a 51-page brief, Seacat, 39, and his attorneys have raised six issues for the state’s high court to consider in his appeal. They argue that:

▪ The trial court erred when it permitted friends, co-workers and a counselor to testify about statements Vashti Seacat made claiming her husband threatened to kill her.

▪ The court wrongly prohibited Brett Seacat from presenting evidence that his wife committed suicide.

▪ A psychologist and a coroner were wrongly barred from testifying that depression is a side effect of a hormone taken by Vashti Seacat for weight loss.

▪ Brett Seacat should have been allowed to testify that his wife allegedly used marijuana to self-medicate depression.

▪ A judge should have ordered jurors to ignore witness testimony suggesting Brett Seacat suffered from narcissism.

▪ Those errors, considered together, prevented a fair trial.

Attorneys for the state in their 37-page response disregarded the arguments, saying the trial court judge properly applied the law and prior court opinions in his rulings and acted within his discretion.

Seacat’s trial

In a three-week trial that largely relied on circumstantial evidence, prosecutors argued that Seacat, a Kingman County resident born into a law enforcement family, plotted his wife’s demise – even forging a suicide note and destroying computer hard drives – after she filed for divorce. They maintained he shot her while she slept then set the house ablaze to cover up the crime.

Friends, family and co-workers of Vashti Seacat described her during testimony as a happy, doting mother looking forward to her future.

Brett Seacat, however, claimed his wife, suicidal and depressed, pleaded with him by cellphone “to get the boys out of the house” the night she died, then ignited a trail of gasoline around her bed before killing herself. Authorities found a gun lying beneath her on the bed.

Seacat testified that he destroyed the hard drives at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center where he worked because he wanted to sell the laptops. He claimed he never forged a note and instead used an old overhead projector at the training center for a fraud exercise.

A Sedgwick County coroner determined that Vashti Seacat died from a bullet fired downward into her head and neck but couldn’t say whether the death was a suicide or homicide because of heat damage to her body.

Vashti Seacat had no drugs or alcohol in her system, according to her autopsy report.

It also showed no signs of carbon monoxide or soot in her lungs, which is expected when people breathe around a fire. The finding supported prosecutors’ contention that she was already dead when the fire was started.

Jurors convicted Seacat on all counts on June 11, 2013.

Two months later, Kingman County Judge Larry Solomon ordered Seacat to serve life in prison for murder plus another six years and three months for the arson and child endangerment counts.

During a two-hour hearing, Seacat accused the judge and his wife’s relatives of benefiting from her death. He maintained his innocence.

Seacat is serving his sentence in an undisclosed out-of-state prison. His placement follows a Kansas Department of Corrections protocol that prevents inmates with law enforcement backgrounds from possibly coming into contact with prisoners they helped incarcerate.

If the Kansas Supreme Court on appeal finds that errors occurred in Seacat’s 2013 trial, it could vacate his convictions and order a new trial.

If Seacat’s convictions are upheld, he could appeal the decision to a higher court.

If rejected in this and future appeals, Seacat would be eligible for parole on the murder conviction in 2038. He would have to serve the other 75-month sentence before being released.

By then, Seacat would be in his late 60s.

Appeal issues

Here’s a deeper look at the issues raised by Seacat and his attorney in his appeal. A summary of the state’s response is included.

▪ Issue No. 1: The trial court judge allowed co-workers and a counselor of Vashti Seacat to testify at trial about her claims that Brett Seacat dreamed about killing her and threatened to kill her if she cheated, as well as threats to kill her, burn down the house and make her death look like a suicide.

During pre-trial hearings, the judge found that Brett Seacat’s actions, if true, prevented his wife from testifying for herself. He also determined that Vashti Seacat had no incentive to falsify or distort the truth.

On appeal, Brett Seacat and his attorneys argue that the judge abused his discretion because the alleged threats were made too far in the past to be considered at trial and that the couple’s impending divorce – in light of previous divorce discussions – gave Vashti Seacat a motive to lie. They say allowing jurors to hear the statements affected the outcome of the trial.

Brett Seacat fails to prove any wrongdoing, the state said in its response. It also contends the defense isn’t eligible to question the admissibility of some of the statements on appeal because it didn’t object to them at trial.

▪ Issue No. 2: The trial judge prevented Brett Seacat from telling jurors that his wife allegedly attempted suicide five times before her death: once in high school, twice while she was living in Kansas City and twice after becoming a mother. He had no evidence of the alleged attempts but wanted to use them to support his contention that Vashti Seacat committed suicide.

The court ruled in pre-trial hearings that the attempts were too tenuous and too old for jurors to consider. The state, meanwhile, put on nine witnesses who testified about Vashti Seacat’s positive outlook on life leading up to her death.

Brett Seacat and his attorneys argue on appeal that the exclusions violated Seacat’s constitutional right to a fair trial because establishing a pattern of Vashti Seacat’s alleged self-harm was integral to his defense.

The state says the judge was right to exclude the testimony because the suicide attempts were three to 18 years old.

▪ Issue No. 3: The judge ruled that a coroner and a psychologist the defense planned to question about a weight-loss hormone Vashti Seacat took weren’t qualified to testify about its potential side effects, which include depression and suicide risk.

The judge determined that neither was an expert on the substance even though they would have referenced an authoritative physician’s handbook. The judge also said the psychologist’s opinions were not allowed because he consulted with others about the hormone’s effects.

Brett Seacat planned to use the testimony to support his suicide theory.

On appeal, he and his attorneys argue that the judge abused his discretion in refusing the testimony because it denied Brett Seacat the ability to present an integral part of his defense. They also argue that information in the physician’s handbook should have been admissible.

The state in response says that because the hormone Vashti Seacat took is naturally occurring and falls within the field of endocrinology, neither witness could expertly testify about its effects on the body.

▪ Issue No. 4: The trial court judge barred Brett Seacat from telling jurors his wife allegedly used marijuana to self-medicate depression. The judge ruled that the information was irrelevant.

On appeal, Brett Seacat and his attorneys argue the marijuana use corroborates Seacat’s claims that Vashti Seacat was depressed enough that she sought relief for it.

The state says Brett Seacat had no proof his wife used the drug – he “was merely grasping at straws,” its brief reads – and that allegations were irrelevant to the case.

▪ Issue No. 5: During defense questioning at trial, a witness testified that Vashti Seacat only said she was scared of her husband’s “narcissistic ways.”

Brett Seacat’s attorney objected to the statement and asked the judge to strike it because it didn’t answer the question posed. The judge refused to order jurors to ignore it.

On appeal, Brett Seacat and his attorneys argue that the statement may have led jurors to believe he suffered from a personality disorder, thus affecting his right to a fair trial.

The state says the judge acted within his discretion. It also said the witness answered the defense attorney’s question – it just wasn’t the answer he wanted.

▪ Issue No. 6: Brett Seacat and his attorneys argue that the errors at trial, considered together, should be grounds for the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn his convictions. In their appeal brief, they say the rulings “unfairly skewed the evidence the jury considered.”

Brett Seacat’s claims are without merit, the state said in its response. “Moreover, given the evidence, any individually harmless errors that may have occurred, even when accumulated … did not deny Defendant a fair trial.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

Watch proceedings online

Proceeding from the Kansas Supreme Court can be viewed live online at www.kscourts.org/Kansas-Courts/supreme-court/arguments.asp.

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