TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court sat in judgment Friday of a prominent former Shawnee County prosecutor who built a reputation for winning difficult trials until accused of ethical breaches to secure convictions in high-profile murder and sexual assault cases subsequently reversed on appeal.
A three-attorney panel unanimously recommended in June the Supreme Court disbar Jacqie Spradling for repeatedly making false statements to juries. The state’s disciplinary board for lawyers, however, downgraded the recommended sanction to indefinite suspension of her license. The Supreme Court didn’t issue an immediate ruling.
L.J. Leatherman, the attorney for Spradling, told justices the issue was whether clear and convincing evidence existed that Spradling’s conduct in the trials involved deception and lying to the court and reached the level of professional incompetence. He said, in terms of a double-homicide case, that Spradling made honest mistakes and it would be wrong if prosecutors in Kansas had to routinely deal with a bunch of Monday morning quarterbacking.
“The mission is can we put trust and faith in Ms. Spradling?” Leatherman said. “And, did they prove that she lied to you? I don’t think it’s there. The record just does not support by clear and convincing evidence the recommendations of the panel.”
He said a standard in Kansas that transformed mistakes into negligence and the premise for disbarment meant that “none of us are safe.” He said Spradling’s stubborn personality shouldn’t be confused with malicious intent.
Matt Vogelsberg, who represented the state disciplinary board before the Supreme Court, said Spradling was found to have violated a collection of ethics rules in the way she handled the prominent murder and sex offense cases. The disciplinary office’s findings included evidence demonstrating Spradling intentionally misled the district courts, he said.
He said Spradling’s decision to resign from prosecutor jobs in Bourbon and Allen counties and to step aside from the practice of law should be considered by the Supreme Court when deciding whether to impose indefinite suspension, disbarment or some other resolution.
Spradling said under oath during the disciplinary proceeding she “denied the defendants a fair trial,” but subsequently urged the state not to punish her.
The Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys’ panel of lawyers looking at evidence in the Spradling case sought disbarment after concluding she “knowingly and intentionally” engaged in a deliberate misconduct.
Here is what the panel of Spradling’s peers concluded: “Based on the deliberative pattern of serious misconduct and the serious injury that followed, 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 she adopted a ‘win-at-all-costs’ approach.”
Spradling, who earned her law license in 1992 and secured about 80 murder convictions during her career, landed before the disciplinary board as the Supreme Court overturned the 2012 double-homicide conviction of Dana Chandler in Shawnee County and the Kansas Court of Appeals overturned a 2017 guilty verdict against Jacob Ewing in a sex crime case in Jackson County. Spradling was lead prosecutor in both cases.
Chandler is awaiting retrial for first-degree murder, while Ewing accepted a plea deal to avoid another trial.
The Supreme Court justices appeared more interested in Spradling’s behavior during the Chandler case.
‘Trust your mind’
Leatherman said Spradling was guilty of being confident in her abilities. When confronted with evidence undermining her claim that a protection from abuse order had been issued by a judge against Chandler, Spradling dismissed the notion she might be mistaken, Leatherman said. In the past, she repeatedly held to that false belief when filing an appellate brief and in oral argument before the Supreme Court.
Leatherman said a disciplinary case against Spradling was inevitable and acknowledged some people could inappropriately interpret her conduct as dishonest.
“I knew when she said it and the questions began, that someone would be standing at this podium for Miss Spradling. I didn’t know it’d be me. But she violated your trust. You felt very sure that she did,” Leatherman said.
Her mistakes, however, shouldn’t rise to the level of challenging her license to practice law, Leatherman argued. He said Spradling had a kind of personal confidence essential to high-performing athletes, such as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and former Kansas City Royals infielder George Brett.
“She does not question her mind. And that’s part of being a trial lawyer,” Leatherman said. “Whether you’re Mahomes on the football field or Brett on the baseball field, you must have a short memory and be convinced to are the best or you cannot play at this level. And, when you prosecute first-degree murder cases, you have to trust your mind. You can’t second guess your mind.”
Justices’ mindful questions
Justice 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 that, I see that as prosecutors … trying to say it’s OK for us to walk through a wrongly opened door in order to convict someone,” he said
Chief Justice Marla Luckert said she was puzzled Spradling rejected multiple opportunities in the disciplinary process to clearly declare that she made mistakes at trial. She said a sworn statement given to the disciplinary tribunal repeated her claim nothing unethical occurred.
Justice Eric Rosen, a former Shawnee County District Court judge, said the obligation of a prosecutor was to seek justice. In the Supreme Court’s opinion overturning the Chandler double-homicide conviction. the justices concluded Spradling’s win-at-all-costs approach was her undoing.
Instead, Rosen, said, a prosecutor’s objective should be to seek justice.
“This win-at-all-costs, this exaggeration, this entrenched memory that she has, how do we look at that in light of what is the obligation of a prosecutor?” Rosen said.
Need measuring stick
Justice Caleb Stegall asked a series of questions about the state’s standard for discipline of attorneys and how the judicial branch was to evaluate alleged misconduct.
“We really need some sort of objective measuring tape. What I’m just looking for is like, how do I know what’s incompetent versus what’s just a negligent mistake?” Stegall said.
Vogelsberg recommended the court take into account the belief that some mistakes were pure and didn’t rise to the level of a violation of professional conduct. He said there was certainly a necessity to make findings of negligence, perhaps as defined by the American Bar Association.
Stegall asked Leatherman what the Supreme Court was to do with the disciplinary panel’s conclusion Spradling lied about existence of the protection from abuse order, which was used at trial to convince the jury Chandler was a recognized threat.
“The record here does not show dishonesty or any intent to mislead. It shows that a horrible, horrible thing happened,” Leatherman said.
He said Spradling was a victim of how the human mind worked in terms of whether she believed a protection from abuse order existed or was simply a figment of the imagination.
“If you believe something’s true, you don’t worry about it being untrue,” Leatherman said. “Once you conjure a belief in your head, you don’t question that belief. It’s not the way the mind works.”
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