Kansas Supreme Court overturns death sentence for man convicted in 2004 murders



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TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas' highest court Friday overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of capital murder in connection with the killings a decade ago of a Great Bend woman and her boyfriend after she'd witnessed a robbery.

The state Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Sidney Gleason in Barton County District Court. A 5-2 majority concluded that the presiding trial judge gave flawed instructions to jurors before they considered whether he should be sentenced to lethal injection for the February 2004 murders of Miki Martinez and boyfriend Darren Wornkey.

The justices only narrowly upheld Gleason's convictions for capital murder and other crimes. The key issue was whether Gleason should receive a new trial because a cousin involved in the crimes reneged on a deal to testify against Gleason to escape a death sentence. A 4-3 majority ruled that Gleason's right to a fair trial wasn't violated when the judge had earlier testimony from the cousin read in court after declaring him unavailable as a witness.

A spokesman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt said his office is reviewing the decision and will respond next week.

Sarah Ellen Johnson, a capital appellate defender representing Gleason, said, "Obviously, we're pleased about the death sentence being vacated."

Gleason had been among eight men facing execution in Kansas. The state hasn't executed anyone since reinstating capital punishment in 1994 and the justices have yet to clear the way for any lethal injections.

Prosecutors said Gleason, and his cousin, Damien Thompson, were part of a group that robbed and stabbed a 76-year-old man in his Great Bend home in February 2004. Gleason and Thompson, 24 and 25 at the time, were accused of plotting to kill the 19-year-old Martinez because she'd been present and they worried about what she would tell police. Authorities said they also planned to murder Wornkey, 24, if he got in the way.

Gleason shot Wornkey several times as he sat in a Jeep outside a home he shared with Martinez, prosecutors said, and they drove Martinez out of town, where Thompson strangled and shot her as Gleason watched. Thompson later agreed to testify against Gleason and was sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole for 25 years.

But Thompson reneged on the agreement, and Gleason said it was unfair to have Thompson's earlier testimony read because he couldn't be questioned by the defense. The three dissenting justices said Gleason should have been granted a new trial, but the majority noted that Thompson had been questioned earlier.

As for the death sentence, the issue involved how jurors weighed evidence in favor of imposing a death sentence against factors arguing against it. For example, a defendant may argue that the public will be protected if he receives a life sentence.

The court has ruled previously that a presiding judge must instruct jurors that they can consider a circumstance favoring the defendant even if it's not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In Gleason's case, District Judge Hannelore Kitts didn't give that specific instruction.

The court's majority said the jurors had to "speculate" about the legal standard and may have discounted some evidence improperly.

But the dissenters said there was no evidence jurors were "bewildered" or unable to fully consider evidence favoring Gleason.


Online:

The Kansas Supreme Court's decision: http://bit.ly/1n1Rixl


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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