The family of Arkansas City teenage murder victim Jodi Sanderholm has joined the effort to unseat four Kansas Supreme Court justices who overturned death sentences in other cases.
Members of the Sanderholm family appeared at a news conference Wednesday at the Wichita Central Library called by the group Kansans for Justice.
In a dueling news conference, a spokesman for a group supporting the justices said he found it troubling that the Sanderholm case is being introduced into a political campaign while it is still being considered by the Supreme Court.
Sanderholm, a 19-year-old student at Cowley County Community College, was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by Justin Eugene Thurber, who was sentenced to death in 2009. Thurber’s case is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Kansans for Justice, which includes family and friends of the those murdered by Jonathan and Reginald Carr, is seeking to oust four justices: Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and justices Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Marla Luckert.
In the Carr case, the state justices upheld the verdicts of guilt on murder and other charges. But they ordered that the penalty phase of the trial be redone with each brother treated separately, instead of together as they were the first time. That part of the ruling was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices are up for retention in Tuesday’s election along with Justice Caleb Stegall, who was recently appointed to the court by Gov. Sam Brownback and is not being opposed by Kansans for Justice.
Appearing at the anti-retention news conference were Jodi Sanderholm’s parents, Brian and Cindy Sanderholm, and her sister, Jennifer Aldridge.
Aldridge, the only family member who spoke, said the Sanderholms joined the effort because they fear the Supreme Court will overturn Thurber’s death sentence. Aldridge said the murder and court case were a wrenching emotional experience for the family, particularly when they found out during the trial that Thurber had stalked her and her sister for more than 10 years.
My fear is that these judges are going to overturn his death sentence and my family will then be put through more torture to where we then have to file with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jennifer Aldridge, sister of murder victim Jodi Sanderholm
“My fear is that these judges are going to overturn his death sentence and my family will then be put through more torture to where we then have to file with the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said.
Defense of justices
Ryan White, of the group Kansans for Fair Courts, did not directly address the Sanderholm case, saying he did not want to comment on a pending court case.
He did say the Supreme Court has upheld three death sentences since the Carr brothers case, upending the criticism that they won’t approve a death sentence.
Karen Humphreys, a retired U.S. magistrate and Sedgwick County District Court judge, appeared on the courthouse lawn with White to defend the justices.
(Supreme Court Justices) deserve our respect and support. They don’t base their decisions on popular opinion, they base them on facts and the law and the Constitution.
Karen Humphreys, retired U.S. magistrate and Sedgwick County District Court judge
“They’ve done their job. They deserve our respect and support,” she said. “They don’t base their decisions on popular opinion, they base them on facts and the law and the Constitution.”
She said people need to realize that when judges are attacked over their rulings, they’re barred by judicial ethics rules from being able to defend themselves publicly.
Criticism of former DA
Amy Scott James, the president and spokeswoman of Kansans for Justice, harshly criticized Nola Foulston, the former Sedgwick County district attorney who successfully prosecuted the Carrs.
Foulston has appeared in television ads urging voters to retain the current justices.
“It’s definitely offensive to everybody, but I can say I wasn’t surprised she did that,” James said. “Several of us … knew she was a politician first, before she was a prosecutor.”
White, however, scoffed at that criticism of Foulston.
“She served this community for over 30 years,” he said. “I don’t think the hundreds, or thousands, of people who are behind bars would call her that.”
Attorney General Derek Schmidt told reporters Wednesday that he’d been courted by both sides in the campaign but decided neutrality would be the best policy.
“I’ve previously told both sides that have expressed interest in my views that I think given the nature of our representation of the state and the fact that we’re in front of the court frequently, I think I’ll just quietly cast my votes and not talk publicly about the issue,” Schmidt said.
He said he had already voted by advance ballot.
Neither of the two groups has released information on where it’s getting the money to run expensive multimedia campaigns.
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Eagle