It is rare to see a court forcefully and thoroughly shame a prosecutor; even in instances of egregious misconduct, courts often avoid naming the lawyers responsible, silently observing an unspoken code that has long shielded prosecutors from meaningful scrutiny. However, the Kansas Supreme Court delivered a doozy of an opinion late last week, reversing the murder convictions of Dana Chandler because of widespread prosecutorial misconduct in the case. The prosecutor, who tried Chandler while she was an ADA with the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office, is Jacqueline (Jacqie) Spradling. Not only did she mislead the jurors during the trial, but she also defended her actions before the Kansas Supreme Court’s justices in 2016 at oral argument. Unwilling to acknowledge the extent and gravity of her wrongdoing, Spradling made a mess of the case, and the belated efforts of the state’s solicitor general’s office to salvage the convictions were too little, too late.
In 2012, the State tried Dana Chandler for the killings of her ex-husband, Mike Sisco, and his fiancée, Karen Harkness. There was no physical evidence linking Chandler to the crime. The prosecution’s entire case relied on—as the state supreme court put it—“limited circumstantial evidence.” To bolster the chances of winning a conviction, Spradling made a striking number of improper comments during her opening and closing arguments. One of them in particular was both false and damaging to Chandler’s defense: Spradling “falsely told the jury that Dana L. Chandler had violated a nonexistent protection from abuse order in her divorce case.”
Writing for the entire court, Justice Dan Biles penned an incisive and powerful opinion. It opened:
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. 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. To its credit, the State belatedly concedes one serious prosecutorial error, although there were more. We reverse Dana L. Chandler’s premediated first-degree murder convictions. We remand this case to the district court for further proceedings.
The serious error was the one about the “protection from abuse order” that Spradling emphasized in her closing statement although it simply did not exist. But, perturbed by a record chock full of the prosecutor’s unsubstantiated and false claims, improper comments, and disregard for trial court orders, the justices “address[ed] several” instances of Spradling’s misconduct to ensure that they do not “reoccur.”
While the full opinion is well worth reading, here we will highlight the Court’s analysis of the most serious instance of misconduct. In short, Spradling sought to make Chandler look dangerous, and referred to a court order that never existed to advance that perception.
All agree there is no protection from abuse order in the trial record. Yet, during closing argument, prosecutor Jacqueline Spradling told the jury:
“How else do we know the defendant is guilty? Mike got a protection from abuse, a court order. He applied and said, hey, Judge, please order this woman to stay away from me and the Judge agreed. And in 1998, meaning one year after he filed for the divorce, he was continuing to have problems with the defendant not leaving him alone. So he got a court order saying she has to stay away. The protection from abuse order did not stop the defendant, though.” (Emphases added.)
These misstatements conveyed serious adverse impressions to the jury. They improperly declared that a judge independently reviewed Chandler’s behavior and concluded she was dangerous enough to justify a court order for Mike’s protection.
Remarkably, when confronted with the claim of misconduct on direct appeal, Spradling refused to acknowledge that she had done something improper. The court’s opinion explains how her position shifted from outright misrepresentations in the brief to a misguided effort to downplay her wrongdoing at argument. The video of the initial oral argument reveals that the justices were not pleased with what happened at trial and were further displeased with how Spradling—who was the advocate at argument—responded to their questions. (From this point in the video and through the following 15 minutes, the justices hammer on several instances of prosecutorial misconduct that later made their way into the final opinion. They also explained that the lack of physical evidence and the State’s reliance on “inference on inference” made the misconduct especially problematic. At one point, a justice explained the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence, which somehow seemed to elude Spradling, an experienced prosecutor.)
After the first oral argument, the court permitted Ms. Chandler to enlist a new lawyer, and the parties supplied additional briefing. The court then scheduled a second oral argument; the video of the prosecutor’s part begins here. In this round of briefing and argument, a representative from the solicitor general’s office (who appears to have previously worked with Spradling in Shawnee County) tried to walk the State’s position back to something more reasonable given the frustration the justices demonstrated at the first argument. It was clear that things were not going well when—after Jodi Litfin explained that she modified the State’s position after watching the video of the first argument—Justice Biles asked why the concession of error was based on the previous oral argument rather than the record on appeal (check out 24:13 in the video). Lawyers will recognize this as an especially brutal and telling moment.
Simply put, the writing was on the wall. Justice Biles noted that Spradling’s misdirection “seem[ed] to be a pretty big deal.” He went on to say that “anybody in law school” would have known to avoid the level of speculation in which Spradling engaged during her opening argument. Perhaps he best summed it up when he said, at 41:16, “this kind of stuff just jumps off the page.” In his opinion, Justice Biles described the State’s concession of error this way: “while laudable, [it] was a long time coming—even though we would expect the State never to shield something so obviously indefensible.” Driving it home, he wrote, “[t]his court cannot understand why so much energy had to be expended by all concerned to get us to the State’s belated admission about something that never existed in the trial record.”
That latter question—why prosecutors expend seemingly bottomless resources on defending what is indefensible conduct—is one we ask regularly at The Open File. It is especially distressing in a case like this one. Chandler’s case was a cold case; she was charged some ten years after the murders in question. The State put on what Justice Biles called a “data dump” prosecution, with 10 days of testimony, over 80 witnesses, and around 900 exhibits of purely circumstantial evidence. Now, the District Attorney, Mike Kagay, must decide whether to try Chandler again. While he does that, he has already distanced himself from the misconduct, putting out a press release that makes clear that Chad Taylor was the DA when the first trial took place.
Spradling, who left Shawnee County’s office in 2016, is still getting plenty of work. She was recently appointed to be a special prosecutor, and she is serving as an assistant district attorney in another county. It remains to be seen whether she will face any professional discipline in light of the Kansas Supreme Court’s opinion. One of the candidates who ran for District Attorney in 2016 actually filed ethical complaints against Spradling for her conduct in Chandler. Those complaints appear to be pending. According to one article about the Chandler case, Spradling has been informally disciplined before, although it is unclear whether that arose from her misconduct in this matter. Perhaps the disciplinary body will be reenergized by a decision that eliminates any doubt that Spradling ran afoul of the rules. It certainly should be.