Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:05 p.m. to add a statement from the Shawnee County District Attorney.
The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday threw out the first-degree murder convictions of a woman accused of killing her ex-husband and his fiancée, ruling the prosecutor had engaged in prejudicial misconduct.
In 2012, a Shawnee County jury convicted Dana L. Chandler for the killings of Mike Sisco and Karen Harkness a decade earlier. Both victims were shot at least five times in a bed at Harkness’ Topeka home.
Although there was no physical evidence linking her to the crime, Chandler was arrested in 2011 in Oklahoma after a nine-year-long investigation and ultimately convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence.
Chandler was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, each carrying a mandatory prison term of at least 50 years in prison.
In its unanimous opinion, the Kansas Supreme Court found that the prosecutor in the case falsely told the jury that Chandler had violated a protection-from-abuse order issued during her long and bitter divorce from Sisco.
“In a criminal prosecution, the State's obligation is to ensure its case is vigorously, but properly, championed to bring about a just conviction — not merely a win,” Justice Dan Biles wrote for the court. “Prosecutors are the State's instrument in fulfilling this duty. When they fail, our system fails, and the safeguards protecting the constitutional right to a fair trial strain to the breaking point. That is what happened in this case.”
The court sent the case back to the trial court “for further proceedings,” meaning that the case could be retried. That decision would be up to the Shawnee County District Attorney, Michael F. Kagay.
Kagay said in a written statement Friday afternoon that his office is evaluating whether it can seek further review of the case. He said his office "will now have to take a completely fresh look at the evidence in light of the Court's opinion."
While throwing out Chandler's convictions, the court rejected her argument that there was insufficient evidence tying her to the crimes.
Chandler “had motive and opportunity, and engaged in suspicious behavior after the murders,” the court wrote, although it conceded that the circumstantial evidence was “not overwhelming.”
But it found that the prosecutor’s misstatements to the jury that Chandler had violated a nonexistent protection-from-abuse order “conveyed serious adverse impressions to the jury.”
“Taken as a whole,” the court concluded, “this prosecution unfortunately illustrates how a desire to win can eclipse the State's responsibility to safeguard the fundamental constitutional right to a fair trial owed to any defendant facing criminal prosecution in a Kansas courtroom.”
In reaching that conclusion, the court chastised the state for its belated acknowledgement that the prosecutor had misled the jury and its attempts to deflect responsibility for her misstatements.
The state's concession, the court said, “while laudable, was a long time coming — even though we would expect the State never to shield something so obviously indefensible.”
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.