Kansas Supreme Court Weighs Sanction of Former Prosecutor for Ethical Breaches in High-Profile Cases
TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday handed down judgment on a prominent former Shawnee County prosecutor who built a reputation for winning tough trials until he was charged with ethical breaches for obtaining convictions in high-profile murder and sexual assault cases later overturned on appeal.
A three-lawyer panel unanimously recommended in June that the Supreme Court strike out Jacqie Spradling for repeatedly making false statements to juries. The state’s Disciplinary Board for Attorneys, however, reduced the recommended sanction to indefinite suspension of his license. The Supreme Court did not issue an immediate decision.
LJ Leatherman, Spradling’s attorney, told the judges the question was whether there was clear and convincing evidence that Spradling’s conduct in the trials involved deception and lying in court and rose to the level of professional incompetence. He said, regarding a double homicide case, Spradling made honest mistakes and it would be a mistake if Kansas prosecutors routinely had to deal with a bunch of Monday morning quarterbacks.
“The mission is whether we can trust Mrs. Spradling?” Leatherman said. “And, did they prove that she lied to you?” I don’t think it’s there. The record simply does not support the panel’s recommendations with clear and convincing evidence.
He said a standard in Kansas that turned mistakes into negligence and the premise of write-off meant “none of us are safe.” He said Spradling’s headstrong personality shouldn’t be mistaken for malicious intent.
Matt Vogelsberg, who represented the state’s disciplinary board before the Supreme Court, said Spradling broke a set of ethical rules in the way she handled high profile murder and sex offense cases. The disciplinary office’s findings included evidence showing that Spradling intentionally misled the district courts, he said.
He said Spradling’s decision to resign as a prosecutor in Bourbon and Allen counties and retire from practicing law should be considered by the Supreme Court when deciding whether to impose a sentence. indefinite suspension, disbarment or other resolution.
Spradling testified under oath during the disciplinary proceedings that she “denied the defendants a fair trial,” but then urged the state not to punish her.
The Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys’ panel reviewing evidence in Spradling’s case sought expungement after finding she had “knowingly and intentionally” engaged in willful misconduct.
Here is what Spradling’s peer panel concluded: “Based on the deliberative model of gross misconduct and subsequent serious injury, the Hearing Panel unanimously recommends that the Respondent be disbarred. From all the evidence presented, it appears that the Respondent concluded that Chandler and Ewing were guilty of the crimes charged and that it adopted a “win at all costs” approach.
Spradling, who earned his law degree in 1992 and secured around 80 murder convictions during his career, landed before the disciplinary board as the Supreme Court overturned Dana Chandler’s 2012 double homicide conviction in the Shawnee County and Kansas Court of Appeals overturned a 2017 guilty verdict against Jacob Ewing in a Jackson County sex crime case. Spradling was the lead prosecutor in both cases.
Chandler is awaiting a new trial for first-degree murder, while Ewing has accepted a plea deal to avoid another trial.
The Supreme Court justices seemed more interested in Spradling’s behavior during the Chandler case.
‘Trust your mind’
Leatherman said Spradling was guilty of being confident in his abilities. When confronted with evidence undermining her claim that an abuse protection order had been issued by a judge against Chandler, Spradling dismissed the idea that she might be wrong, Leatherman said. In the past, she has repeatedly held to this false belief when filing an appeal brief and during argument before the Supreme Court.
Leatherman said a disciplinary case against Spradling was inevitable and acknowledged that some people might inappropriately interpret his conduct as dishonest.
“I knew when she said it and the questions started, that someone would be standing at that podium for Miss Spradling. I didn’t know it would be me. But she violated your trust. You were very sure she did,” Leatherman said.
His mistakes, however, should not rise to the level of challenging his license to practice law, Leatherman argued. He said Spradling had a kind of personal confidence that’s essential for top athletes, such as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and former Kansas City Royals infielder George Brett.
“She doesn’t question her mind. And that’s part of being a litigator,” Leatherman said. “Whether you’re Mahomes on the football field or Brett on the baseball field, you have to have a short memory and believe you’re the best or you can’t play at that level. And, when you’re chasing business from first degree murder, you have to trust your mind.You can’t guess your mind.
Thoughtful questions from the judges
Judge Dan Biles said he was wary of such comments from prosecutors because it appeared they were twisting words to justify misconduct.
“Quite honestly, when I see this, I see this as prosecutors … trying to say that we can walk through a door that’s not open in order to convict someone,” he said.
Chief Justice Marla Luckert said she was puzzled. Spradling rejected several opportunities in the disciplinary process to state clearly that she had made errors at trial. She said a sworn statement given to the disciplinary court reiterated her assertion that nothing unethical had happened.
Judge Eric Rosen, a former Shawnee County District Court judge, said a prosecutor’s obligation is to seek justice. In the Supreme Court’s opinion quashing Chandler’s double homicide conviction. the judges concluded that Spradling’s win-at-all-costs approach was his undoing.
Instead, Rosen said, a prosecutor’s goal should be to seek justice.
“This victory at any cost, this exaggeration, this ingrained memory that she has, how do we look at this in light of what is a prosecutor’s obligation?” Rosen said.
Need a measuring stick
Judge Caleb Stegall asked a series of questions about the state’s standard for lawyer discipline and how the judiciary should assess alleged misconduct.
“We really need some sort of objective measuring tape. What I’m just looking for is how do I know what’s incompetent versus what’s just negligent error? Stegall said.
Vogelsberg recommended the court consider the belief that some errors were pure and did not rise to the level of a breach of professional conduct. He said it was certainly necessary to make findings of negligence, perhaps as defined by the American Bar Association.
Stegall asked Leatherman what the Supreme Court should do with the disciplinary committee’s finding. Spradling lied about the existence of the abuse protection order, which was used at trial to convince the jury that Chandler was a known threat.
“The record here shows no dishonesty or intent to mislead. It shows that a horrible, horrible thing happened,” Leatherman said.
He said Spradling was a victim of the way the human mind works in terms of whether she believed an abuse protection order existed or was simply a figment of the imagination.
“If you believe something is true, you don’t worry about it being false,” Leatherman said. “Once you conjure up a belief in your head, you don’t question that belief. That’s not how the mind works.