The Kansas Supreme Court released the following published decisions today:
Appeal No. 117,723: In the Matter of the Adoption of C.L.
Archived oral argument video
The Supreme Court reversed a Wyandotte County District Court order terminating a natural father's parental rights, saying that a natural father "must have had a real-world opportunity to take on his obligation under the circumstances presented." The high court ordered the lower court to expedite a custodial transition to unite the father with the now 2-year-old boy.
The case arose after the mother, who said she did not know she was pregnant until the day she gave birth, immediately put the newborn up for adoption through Kansas Children's Service League. A KCSL social work supervisor contacted the person who the mother thought was the child's father to inform him of the pregnancy and birth. "This news shocked him," the court's decision noted.
A few days later, the father filed a paternity action in Shawnee County District Court to establish paternity, his support obligations, and an order directing that he be the residential parent. But that action was stayed in favor of the Wyandotte County litigation, which the prospective adoptive parents filed the day before the Shawnee County paternity suit. The dispute in Wyandotte County centered on whether the father made reasonable efforts to support or communicate with the child under the unusual circumstances presented.
In reversing the lower courts, the Supreme Court noted "a series of hurdles" were placed between the father and his child "to increase the likelihood of a successful adoption." The court added, "Termination of parental rights should not be determined by which side schemes to be shrewder or more strategic."
Appeal No. 115,739: State of Kansas v. Lawson J. Weekes
Summary calendar; no oral argument
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision dismissing Weekes' appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction and remanded to the Court of Appeals to consider the merits of Weekes' argument that the district court erred in failing to modify Weekes' original sentence after revoking his probation.
Appeal No. 116,710: State of Kansas v. Anthony Michael Anderson
Archived oral argument video
The Supreme Court affirmed Anderson's Bourbon County convictions of child abuse and felony murder in a shaken baby case involving the death of a 6-month-old child left alone in Anderson's care. The court rejected Anderson's argument that the Bourbon County District Court erred in instructing the jury. Further, the court held that even assuming that the district court erred in allowing a witness to testify about Anderson's prior aggression towards the child, this alleged error was harmless because another witnesses testified to the same effect without objection in the trial court. The court also found three instances of prosecutorial error during closing argument but held that they did not deny Anderson a fair trial. Finally, the court held that the cumulative effect of prosecutorial error and the alleged erroneous witness testimony did not deny Anderson a fair trial.
Appeal No. 115,377: State of Kansas v. Awnterio Dwan Lowery
Archived oral argument video
The Supreme Court affirmed Lowery's convictions for the premeditated first-degree murder of Tiffany Davenport-Ray, the attempted premeditated first-degree murder of Melvin Ray, criminal discharge of a firearm at an occupied dwelling, and drug crimes. Lowery's homicide convictions emanated from a shooting between two vehicles travelling down Kansas Avenue in Topeka, Kansas.
The court rejected Lowery's challenges to sufficiency of the evidence, the voluntariness of his statements to law enforcement, and to the admission of certain testimony under the law on cross-examination and hearsay. The court declined to review Lowery's challenge to a jury instruction because Lowery invited any error that may have been present.
The court found three instances of prosecutorial error; found a violation of Lowery's statutory right to be present at a motion hearing; and found that the district court erred in refusing to redact portions of a video recording of Lowery's law enforcement interview admitted into evidence at trial. The court held that these errors, individually and cumulatively, did not require reversal of Lowery's convictions.
Appeal No. 114,373: State of Kansas v. Martin K. Miller
Archived oral argument video
A majority of the Supreme Court affirmed Miller's Douglas Country jury conviction on retrial for the premediated first-degree murder of his wife, Mary Miller. Miller was first convicted of his wife's murder in 2005, and that jury verdict was affirmed by the Supreme Court. In 2012, the Court of Appeals granted Miller's motion for postconviction relief and ordered a new trial. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision to order a new trial. Upon retrial, the new jury also convicted Miller of premeditated first-degree murder, and, again, he appealed to the Supreme Court.
In his appeal of the retrial, the court held that the district court's denial of Miller's motion for a change of venue based on publicity surrounding his first trial, and corresponding pretrial publicity on retrial, did not deny Miller his constitutional right to a trial by an impartial jury. The court further assumed without deciding that the district court erroneously denied a defense for-cause challenge to a prospective juror, and held this assumed error did not require reversal because the defense had the opportunity to cure it with a peremptory challenge.
The court also rejected Miller's claim that the district court erred in refusing to bifurcate his trial into two phases so that the jury would not be influenced by evidence of motive, i.e., his extramarital affair, when determining whether Mary was, in fact killed. Additionally, the court held Miller failed to show that the district court's instruction to the jury regarding evidence of Miller's extramarital affair and access to dating websites was erroneous because the instruction limited use of this evidence to determining Miller's motive and intent.
The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to disqualify the entire Douglas County District Attorney's Office from prosecuting the case based on Miller's allegation of a conflict of interest because Miller's son (a State witness) lived rent-free with an Assistant Douglas County District Attorney, who was not participating in Miller's trial. The court agreed with the district court that the safeguards put in place were sufficient to assure that Miller was not prejudiced by the living arrangement. The court further held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to disqualify the District Attorney's Office as a remedy for the office's failure to notify the defense of a day planner found in an airport parking lot that contained attorney-client privileged information involving Miller's defense. The court reasoned that the District Attorney's Office's handling of the planner was unprofessional but there was no showing of prejudice to the defense because the information in the planner aligned with Miller's testimony at his first trial.
The court rejected Miller's argument that the trial judge committed misconduct when ruling on objections, finding that the judge's rulings were not erroneous, much less misconduct. Further, the court rejected Miller's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to establish that Mary's death was a homicide, reasoning a forensic pathologist testified for the State to this effect and Miller did not preserve his appellate challenge to this testimony by timely and specifically objecting at trial. And, the court rejected Miller's arguments that the district court should have granted defense counsel's mistrial motions based on the State's improper reference to pornography and the trial court allowing the State to present rebuttal expert witness testimony, reasoning any error was harmless. Further, the court found no reversible error in allowing evidence of Miller's extramarital affair, evidence of Miller's access to dating websites, evidence of a life insurance policy, the admission of graphic photographs, and the admission of Miller's prior trial testimony.
Justice Johnson and assigned District Judge Wendel W. Wurst each wrote dissents and both would have reversed Miller's conviction and remanded for a new trial because Miller was denied his right to a fair trial. Justice Johnson opined that Miller was denied a fair trial due to the cumulative effect of the following errors: the retrial's venue; the district court allowing a juror who should have been stricken for cause to sit on the jury; the Assistant Douglas County Attorney providing rent-free lodging to a principle State's witness; the Douglas County Attorney's Office's failure to turn over privileged conversations Miller had with his attorney; the district court's decision to allow evidence of graphic photos and of Miller accessing dating websites; and the forensic pathologist's expert opinion on the cause of death, which Justice Johnson opined was improperly based on the pathologist assessing witness credibility and weighing conflicting evidence. District Judge Wurst agreed with Justice Johnson and added that he would have found Miller's trial objections were sufficient to preserve for appellate review Miller's challenge to the forensic pathologist's testimony on Mary's cause of death.
Kansas Court of Appeals decisions released today.