Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mary Sanchez: Court gave Roeder new avenue in appeal

This much is clear: In 2009, Scott Roeder walked into a Wichita church on a Sunday morning as worship began and murdered abortion doctor George Tiller with one shot to the forehead.

But whether Roeder can seek parole after serving only 25 years of his life sentence, not the 50 the judge imposed, is now an open question.

A June U.S. Supreme Court ruling appears to have invalidated such increased sentencing. And Roeder’s case is still on appeal. It is the most high-profile example of the effect the ruling might have in this area. But many other cases will be affected, with prosecutors and judges stymied in their abilities to gain harsher penalties when factors merit.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt already has ratcheted back from seeking the so-called Hard 50 in the first-degree murder case of Brett Seacat, the Kingman man convicted last month of killing his wife. Schmidt’s office is still reviewing the Supreme Court ruling, trying to determine the impact.

They need to figure it out. If necessary, the Legislature needs to act, realigning Kansas law to preserve enhanced sentencing measures.

The Alleyne v. United States case involved a Virginia robbery where brandishing a gun increased the punishment. The 5-4 decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas found that any element used by a judge for increasing a mandatory minimum sentence must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.

Judges still might have some room to maneuver, using avenues such as revisiting the sentencing phase of a case still on appeal, or stacking sentences consecutively to reach a higher number of years to be served.

Certainly there are good reasons for sentencing guidelines to help keep justice fair. But families of victims also deserve their due in extreme cases.

Even Tiller’s most vehement detractors couldn’t find fault with the sentencing imposed on Roeder. His crime was that horrific. The judge imposed the higher number of years in part because of premeditation, a lack of remorse and the fact that he committed the murder in a church.

But the court may have given Roeder another avenue to fight that sentence. His ex-wife is horrified at the prospect. Her worst fear is that the case would have to be retried, and she’s been doing her own research to try to understand the ruling.

“They need to figure this out yesterday,” said Lindsey Roeder.