High-profile trial in Kansas hinges on ‘jealousy, rage and obsession’ – with no physical evidence

TOPEKA — A Shawnee County prosecutor told jurors on Friday to forget the science as he laid out the circumstantial evidence linking Dana Chandler to the 20-year-old murders of her ex-husband and fiancée.

All physical evidence in the case, including DNA collected from the crime scene, excludes Chandler, the defense countered.

Chandler is being retried in a case that captured national attention more than a decade ago when police and a politically ambitious district attorney teamed up with “48 Hours” to identify her as the likely killer of a unsolved crime of passion, then coordinated with the media to film and photograph his arrest. Jacqie Spradling, the lead prosecutor in the case, was convicted in 2012 of lying to the jury about nonexistent evidence.

The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the conviction based on Spradling’s misconduct, then expunged it after a lengthy disciplinary process.

Opening arguments began on Friday after years of evidentiary motion hearings and days of questioning potential jurors. Chandler is charged with two counts of first degree murder.

An HBO documentary crew films the trial. Staff from “48 Hours” and “Dateline NBC” are also present, along with local reporters and Lamonte McIntyre, an innocent man who spent 23 years in prison after being convicted in Wyandotte County. McIntyre is a co-founder of Miracle of Innocence, an Overland Park nonprofit, which supports Chandler’s defense in the case.

Prosecutor Charles Kitt told jurors there were no indications of breaking and entering or theft at the southwest Topeka duplex where Mike Sisco and Karen Harkness were shot in 2002. Phone records showed that Chandler had called Sisco 700 times in the seven months before his death. She showed up randomly and uninvited at Sisco’s house and at family gatherings. Harkness sent emails describing Chandler as “crazy”.

At the time, Chandler was living in Denver. She told police she was driving in the mountains of Colorado when her ex-husband was killed. But she didn’t tell police about the two cans of gas she had bought, which would have given her enough gas to drive to Topeka and back without stopping to buy more in road course.

“Science is not going to solve this case,” Kitt said. “This case is not based on DNA. This case is not based on hair. This case is not based on fingerprints. This case is based on jealousy, rage and obsession .

Chandler appeared in court wearing dark blue dress pants, a light blue button-up shirt and a cardigan. She shook her head and took notes during open arguments.

Her attorney, Tom Bath, told jurors she was 700 miles from Topeka when Sisco and Harkness were killed. After 20 years of reviewing the evidence, prosecutors are still unable to find anything to indicate Chandler was in the house, in Topeka, or even in the state of Kansas, on the day they died.

Police, he said, had a narrow view for Chandler and refused to consider other suspects.

“Everything they looked at, everything they looked at, excluded Dana,” Bath said. “Not just DNA. Not just hair and fiber. Fingerprints, everything.

Bath referred to burnt arm hair on a casing found at the scene. DNA doesn’t match Chandler or the victims.

“It’s killer DNA,” Bath said.

In the four years leading up to the retrial, Chandler and his rotating cast of lawyers tried to point out the police’s inability to examine other suspects. A judge authorized a DNA test for Harkness’s son-in-law, but the defense did not release the results of that test.

Bath told jurors about another possible suspect, Terry Tignor, and the failure of police to pursue a lead involving an attempt a week after the murders to cash a check that had been stolen from Sisco. If police followed the potential suspect – who was friends with Sisco’s daughter’s boyfriend – the records were lost, Bath said.

At a preliminary hearing ahead of the retrial, a prostitute claimed Tignor confessed to the killings before he was shot by a woman in 2020. Prosecutors considered the shooting to be in self-defense.

Former Shawnee County District Attorney Jacqie Spradling arrives Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, at Kansas Supreme Court for a disciplinary hearing. The court disbarred her for misconduct. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Former Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor took office in January 2009 after defeating an incumbent who refused to press charges against Chandler. He formed a cold case unit, led by Spradling, to boost his profile as he prepared to run for the U.S. Senate. The Democrat came under pressure from his own party to withdraw from the race in 2014.

Taylor now faces an ethics complaint for aiding and supervising Spradling during the first trial.

Spradling repeatedly referenced a non-existent abuse protection order she claimed Sisco obtained against Chandler. She fabricated the subject of a five-minute phone call between Chandler and Sisco shortly before the murders. She falsely claimed that Chandler had researched articles on how to get away with murder.

In his closing remarks to the jury, Spradling violated a judge’s order by pointing out Chandler’s sister in the courtroom. Spradling said Chandler stole their father from the Sisco children, although he knows it’s inappropriate for a prosecutor to comment on the effect of a crime on a victim’s family.

Earlier this year, the Kansas Supreme Court disbarred Spradling from the bar for “a gross pattern of grossly unethical misconduct.” The decision was based on his actions in the Chandler trial, as well as an unrelated case involving sex crimes in Jackson County.

During jury selection this week, it became clear that many potential jurors were familiar with the previous trial. District Judge Cheryl Rios denied Bath’s motions to move the trial or dismiss the jury pool, but she agreed to read a statement telling jurors that Chandler’s earlier conviction was the result of misconduct by Spradling.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.

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