State v. Chandler

Decision Date06 April 2018
Docket NumberNo. 108,625,108,625
Citation307 Kan. 657,414 P.3d 713
Parties STATE of Kansas, Appellee, v. Dana L. CHANDLER, Appellant.
CourtKansas Supreme Court

Nancy Ogle, of Ogle Law Office, L.L.C., of Wichita, argued the cause in the original argument and was on the original briefs for appellant; Stacey L. Schlimmer, of Schlimmer Law, LLC, of Overland Park, argued the cause on reargument, and Adam D. Stolte, of Stolte Law, LLC, of Overland Park, was with her on the supplemental brief for appellant; Dana L. Chandler, appellant, was on the pro se supplemental brief.

Jacqueline Spradling, chief deputy district attorney, argued the cause in the original argument, and Jodi Litfin, assistant district attorney, Chadwick J. Taylor, former district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, were with her on the original brief for appellee; Jodi Litfin, assistant solicitor general, argued the cause on reargument, and Michael F. Kagay, district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, were with her on the supplemental briefs for appellee.

The opinion of the court was delivered by Biles, J.:

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.


Mike Sisco and Karen Harkness were found dead in Karen's Topeka home about 2 p.m. on July 7, 2002. Both were shot at least five times. They were in bed as the shooting began.

There was no evidence anything was missing. When the bodies were discovered, Karen was wearing jewelry, including a diamond bracelet, a Rolex watch, and a gold ring. Mike's wallet was in his shorts. It contained two uncashed checks and $951.83 in cash. Karen's purse was on the kitchen counter. It had a billfold and $352.85 in cash. Mike's checkbook was on the dining room table. A sliding glass door leading into the house from the back was ajar. The gun was never recovered, and no fingerprints were found on the empty shell casings.

The pair had been to a casino about 45 minutes from Karen's home until about 1:30 a.m. on July 7. Several neighbors testified about their observations those early morning hours. One said she heard a car idling around 2 a.m. for 15 to 20 minutes. Around 3 a.m., she heard a loud pop she thought was a gun shot or car crashing into something. Another neighbor got home at 1 a.m. and saw no vehicles near Karen's home. At 3 a.m., he heard a car door, saw the taillights of Mike's SUV, and then heard another car door. One neighbor testified she noticed Karen's garage door open at 5 a.m., which was unusual.

Several family members suspected Chandler, Mike's ex-wife. Mike initiated the divorce in 1997 and obtained custody of their children. At the time of the murders, Chandler lived in Denver, Colorado.

Topeka Police Department Sergeant Richard Volle called Chandler on July 7 to give the death notification. Her failure to ask certain questions, such as where Mike was when killed and if anybody else was murdered, struck Volle as suspicious. He obtained her phone and financial records. A nine-year investigation ensued.

Timeline, arrest, and trial

On July 11, 2002, Volle interviewed Chandler at her attorney's office while she was in Topeka for Mike's funeral. During that meeting Chandler gave the first explanation for her whereabouts on July 6 and 7. A police officer went to Denver on July 11 and 12 to search her apartment and investigate her alibi.

On July 15, 2002, Chandler was arrested in Topeka on a child support warrant. Her black Mitsubishi Eclipse was seized. The car had an Arizona license plate. No evidence linking Chandler to the murders was found in the car.

In August 2002, a $30 check forged on Mike's bank account was presented at a Kwik Shop. The investigation uncovered that Walt Rogers passed the check, and Terry Tignor had given it to Rogers. Both had extensive prior criminal records. At trial, a defense theory was that Mike and Karen were killed during a burglary and the police failed to investigate similar burglaries in Karen's neighborhood. The check was drawn on a different bank account than the ones found in Karen's home.

Volle testified the investigation went cold around the end of 2002, although some efforts continued.

In May 2003, Chandler's hair was collected and compared with hair and fiber samples from the crime scene. The samples were not hers. Chandler eventually moved to Oklahoma.

In July 2011, the Topeka Police Department coordinated a two-week "surveillance gathering" in Oklahoma so that a "safe interview could be conducted and at a point after that a safe arrest could be made," as it was described by Topeka police detective Douglas Searcy. Police searched Chandler's home and her sister's home in Oklahoma. No evidence linking Chandler to the crimes was discovered. She was charged with two counts of premeditated first-degree murder. See K.S.A. 21-3401(a).

The State recorded Chandler's post-arrest jailhouse phone calls. And on the eve of trial, the State sent a limb hair discovered on a shell casing for comparison to known samples from Chandler and the victims. The test excluded all three as possible matches for the hair.

The trial was held in March 2012. There were 10 days of testimony during which the State called over 80 witnesses and had nearly 900 exhibits admitted into evidence. Yet despite this testimonial and documentary bulk, the State's case relied on limited circumstantial evidence: (1) Chandler's inconsistent statements concerning her whereabouts on July 6 and 7, 2002; (2) her gas purchases on those days; (3) her obsessive behavior toward Mike and Karen; and (4) two arguably incriminating post-arrest jailhouse phone calls.

The jury convicted her of both premeditated first-degree murders. At the sentencing hearing, the district court found Chandler knowingly and purposely killed more than one person and that the crimes were committed in a heinous, atrocious, and cruel manner. Those findings permitted the court at the time to sentence Chandler to two consecutive life sentences, each carrying a mandatory minimum 50-year prison term. See K.S.A. 21-4635.

We detail the State's evidence next because its strengths and weaknesses impact the outcome.

Inconsistent statements concerning Chandler's whereabouts

Receipts and credit card statements confirm Chandler was in Denver at 2 p.m. on July 6. Receipts also confirm she was in Loveland, Colorado, north of Denver, around 5 p.m. on July 7. She provided at least three explanations about where she was the 27 hours in between.

During her July 11, 2002, interview with Volle, Chandler said she left her house around 10 a.m., July 7, and drove through the mountains on I-70, travelling west towards Dillon, Colorado. She said she hiked near Granby and took Highway 34 to Estes Park. The State presented evidence Chandler did not know there was a lake near Dillon visible from the road. The State also presented evidence her car was not seen on video taken from the guard gates at Rocky Mountain National Park, through which she would have had to pass.

In July 2002, Chandler called an acquaintance and asked him for a referral for an attorney. During that conversation, she told him she was in Denver all weekend on July 6-7.

In August 2002, Chandler met in Denver with another acquaintance, Jeff Bailey, to ask for money for her defense. She told him she had lied to police about where she was because she did not think they would believe her. She gave Bailey a third account, telling him she bought gas in Denver and drove to Glenwood Springs, Craig, Steamboat, towards Fort Collins, and then back to Denver. He asked if she had seen smoke from forest fires he recalled from television reports. Chandler said no. The State presented evidence she would have seen smoke along this route.

The State produced evidence Chandler planned as recently as July 2 to come to Topeka on July 6 to pick up her son.

Chandler's gas purchases

On July 6, Chandler bought $21.28 in gasoline in Denver. She also purchased a cigarette lighter and two 5-gallon gas cans at a Denver AutoZone. Her next known gas purchase was at 5 p.m., July 7, for $24.10 in Loveland.

During the July 11, 2002 interview with Volle, Chandler mentioned buying the lighter, but not the gas cans. Police found a 5-gallon gas can with a "small amount of gas [in it], less than a cup" in her apartment during the July 11-12 search. The State produced evidence Chandler could not have driven from Denver to Topeka and back to Loveland without stopping for more fuel, even if she had both 5-gallon gas cans and her vehicle's full fuel tank.

But this was also too much gas to cover the shorter route through Colorado Chandler claimed to have taken. And there is testimony the gas purchases are inconsistent with the longer route she also said she took through Colorado, although it is unclear whether there was too much or too little gas for that. In her pro se supplemental brief, Chandler contends the longer route was 487 miles and within her vehicle's fuel capacity without using the 5-gallon cans.

Since Chandler's known gas purchases could not have fueled a trip to Topeka and back, police investigated whether she stopped along I-70 between Oakley and Topeka. In July 2002, Detective Michael Barron and another detective spoke to Patti Williams and Margaret Linden, who were WaKeeney Amoco station employees. Williams died before the preliminary hearing and trial. The State was not permitted to prompt Williams' hearsay testimony from...

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    ...States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935).[46] Merriam-Webster Dictionary.[47] State v. Campbell, 23 P.3d 176, 181 (2001).[48] State v. Chandler, 414 P.3d 713, 737 (2018).[49] Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935).[50] State v. Lindsay, 326 P.2d 125, 133 (2014).[51] Thomas M. Fleming, "Negat......

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