Violation of professional ethics in Chandler murder trial focus of disciplinary case
Article updated at 2 p.m. Friday, May 20:
TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court issued a 101-page disciplinary opinion Friday disbarring former Shawnee County prosecutor Jacqie Spradling for a pattern of unethical conduct resulting in “significant prejudice” against the accused.
It was the most stringent punishment available to the Supreme Court, and followed the unanimous recommendation of a three-attorney panel that heard evidence of Spradling’s penchant for making false statements in court. The justices found Spradling violated more than a half dozen Kansas rules of professional conduct.
“The evidence in this case demonstrates a serious pattern of grossly unethical misconduct,” the Supreme Court majority said in the decision. “After carefully considering the findings, conclusions, recommendations and the American Bar Association standards for imposing lawyer sanctions, we find that respondent’s intolerable acts of deception warrant the severe sanction of disbarment.”
In addition, the court mandated the Office of Judicial Administration “strike the name of Jacqueline J. Spradling from the roll of attorneys licensed to practice law in Kansas.” Her disbarment was to coincide with publication of Friday’s decision.
Spradling came under scrutiny after winning convictions against Dana Chandler in a double-homicide case in Shawnee County and later for her work on a Jackson County sexual assault case involving defendant Jacob Ewing. In both instances, the convictions were overturned on appeal.
The Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys’ panel of lawyers recommended disbarment of Spradling after concluding she “knowingly and intentionally” engaged in a deliberate misconduct to win convictions. In a highly unusual maneuver, the state’s disciplinary administrator independently urged the Supreme Court to reject the hearing panel’s conclusion and impose a lesser punishment of indefinite suspension.
Spradling asserted she shouldn’t receive any form of discipline for what the Supreme Court concluded was a pattern of “serious misconduct and dishonesty” warranting disbarment. Spradling’s attorney, LJ Leatherman, said during the disciplinary proceedings that Spradling made mistakes during the Chandler trial, but she didn’t intentionally try to mislead jurors.
The Supreme Court majority concentrated on prosecutorial misconduct in the Chandler trial and decided to set aside issues raised from the Ewing case. The justices concluded Spradling had ignored orders of a district court, repeatedly made arguments to the jury that lacked evidentiary support, intentionally lied to the Supreme Court in written briefs and during oral arguments, and made false statements during the disciplinary investigation.
In a dissent, Justice Evelyn Wilson, a former chief judge of the Shawnee County District Court, said the majority accepted the hearing panel’s recommendation to strip Spradling of her profession despite Wilson’s belief Spradling was “one of the most skilled, successful and expert trial attorneys in this state.”
Wilson said in her dissent the justices discarded for lack of sufficient evidence a portion of the three-lawyer hearing panel’s most serious findings.
“Oh, Spradling did make mistakes, and those mistakes were serious and costly,” Wilson said in her dissent. “They caused reversals of convictions for murder and rape. But we also know some of Spradling’s mistakes were based in part on mistakes made by other professionals who were honest and highly skilled.”
In 2021, Spradling resigned from legal positions in Bourbon and Allen counties and placed her law license on inactive status.
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 Chandler in Shawnee County and the Kansas Court of Appeals overturned a 2017 guilty verdict against Ewing in a sex crime case in Jackson County. Spradling was lead prosecutor in both cases.
Ewing accepted a plea deal to avoid another trial, while Chandler is awaiting retrial on two counts of first-degree murder. She was accused of shooting to death in 2002 of her former husband Michael Sisco and Sisco’s girlfriend Karen Harkness in Topeka.
Attorney Keen Umbehr, who has supported Chandler during the lengthy legal drama, filed a formal ethics complaint against Spradling in 2016 based on Spradling’s trial work in the Chandler case.
“I’m glad that the Supreme Court disbarred Jacqie Spradling for the misconduct she committed in the 2012 Chandler case,” Umbehr said. “I’m disappointing that the court didn’t go farther and fashion a remedy that would address the serious injury Spradling‘s misconduct did to the administration of justice.”
Umbehr also said he was disappointed Wilson considered disbarment too harsh given evidence of Spradling’s abuse of prosecutorial authority.
In 2018, the state Supreme Court unanimously found justification to reverse Chandler’s convictions in a decision that said the prosecution of Chandler by Spradling “unfortunately illustrates how a desire to win can eclipse the state’s responsibility to safeguard the fundamental constitutional right to a fair trial owed to any defendant facing criminal prosecution in a Kansas courtroom.”
In that opinion, Justice Dan Biles concluded: “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.”
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