Defense questioning in double-homicide allows prosecutor to ask about request for restraining order
TOPEKA — A defense attorney on Tuesday questioned the lead detective in a high-profile double-homicide case about why he gave false testimony under oath to help prosecutors convict Dana Chandler a decade ago, igniting the latest flash of controversy in Chandler’s retrial.
Chandler faces two first-degree murder charges in the 2002 killings of her ex-husband, Mike Sisco, and his fiancee, Karen Harkness, at their southwest Topeka duplex. The case has attracted national media, starting when “48 Hours” took interest in the cold case in 2009.
The Kansas Supreme Court overturned Chandler’s 2012 conviction because the prosecutor, Jacqie Spradling, lied about evidence — including a nonexistent protection from abuse order, which retired Topeka police Sgt. Richard Volle falsely claimed he had seen. Spradling was disbarred earlier this year for her misconduct at the 2012 trial.
Tom Bath leads a trio of defense attorneys who have tried to undermine the work conducted by local and state police as they fixated on Chandler, disregarded and destroyed DNA evidence, and failed to keep documented reports about their investigation.
The defense has raised concerns with Shawnee County District Judge Cheryl Rios, who is presiding over the retrial, about the jury’s knowledge of the first trial conviction, the new district attorney’s interview with a local TV station after the trial started, and newly surfaced police interrogation video of proposed alternate suspects caught shortly after the killings with hot checks that belonged to Sisco.
Rios paused the trial Thursday morning to give the defense time to investigate a mysterious new witness who plans to step forward on behalf of the prosecution. The hiatus ended Tuesday with the defense presenting forensic science experts and exploring the alternate suspects.
Bath brought Volle back to the stand to ask him about his repeated, detailed, false testimony at the 2012 trial that a judge had signed a protection from abuse order during divorce proceedings between Chandler and Sisco.
Bath: “That was not true, was it?”
Volle: “Technically, no. It’s not true.”
Bath: “Not technically. It wasn’t true. There was no PFA order signed by a court, was there?”
Volle: “There was no PFA.”
Bath: “Signed by a court.”
Bath: “That was not true, was it?”
Volle: “No, that was not true. It was incorrect.”
When Bath asked if Volle had ever tried to correct his false testimony, Volle insisted his testimony had been “incorrect,” not “false.”
After the exchange, Rios sent the jury and Volle out of the room while attorneys argued about whether Bath had opened the door for the prosecutor, Charles Kitt, to question Volle further about why he was mistaken when he said the PFA existed. Rios had ordered Kitt before the trial to avoid the subject of a PFA entirely.
Kitt presented to the judge an application for a restraining order that Sisco had filed during divorce proceedings in 1997 because Chandler was stalking and harassing Sisco. The order was never granted.
“Bath said numerous times, ‘That was not true; that was not true.’ I think Sgt. Volle should be given an opportunity to explain that,” Kitt said.
Bath said the 2012 conviction was based in part on Volle’s perjured testimony, and the defense should be allowed to point out the detective had “lied under oath.” During a disciplinary hearing for Spradling in 2020, Bath said, Volle blamed the victims’ family for misleading him about the existence of a PFA.
“I don’t believe anything Volle has to say, especially on this topic,” Bath said.
Rios said Kitt could question Volle in front of the jury about the request for a restraining order, so the prosecutor could rehabilitate the detective’s credibility.
“He lied, judge!” Bath exclaimed.
A cornerstone of the defense is to persuade the jury that police focused on Chandler, despite the lack of physical evidence placing her in the state at the time of the killings, while ignoring evidence that pointed to other potential suspects.
They include Walt Rogers and Terry Tignor, who have lengthy criminal records for burglary and theft.
Police separately questioned both of the men about stolen checks they tried to cash in the weeks after the killings. Rogers, who was hostile with police during the interrogation, claimed he was “suckered” by Tignor.
“I don’t want to go back to f***ing prison on some f***ing stupid-ass bull**** charge,” Rogers told them.
Rogers, who appeared Tuesday in court wearing a Twin Cities Harley-Davidson T-Shirt, said he was just telling police whatever they wanted to hear so he could “get out of that cell and go home.” He said he was high on meth at the time and committed too many crimes, including the burglary of just about every storage unit in Topeka and at least two houses, to remember them all.
Video of the interrogations surfaced in the months leading up to the retrial, a point of contention for the defense. The defense also pointed out there are no police reports about Rogers and Tignor. There is no record of the search warrant police executed at Tignor’s house, or what they found.
Tignor was killed in a justified shooting two years ago, shortly before a hearing where evidence surfaced about a prostitute’s claim that Tignor had confessed to killing Sisco and Harkness. However, a retired police officer said Tuesday that Tignor was in custody at the time of the killings. Rogers was out of jail at the time.
During the interrogation of Tignor, police made it clear they didn’t view him as a suspect.
A police sergeant told Tignor, “We’re not after you,” and, “What we’re trying to figure out is where these checks came from.” Police promised to put in a good word with Tignor’s parole officer and not charge him with a crime.
“This just throws a wrench into our homicide case, and makes us have to look at other people, and it hampers the investigation,” the sergeant told Tignor during the 2002 interrogation.
“I’m not trying to railroad you here,” the sergeant said. “We just have to clear this up.”
Kitt told the jury on the opening day of the trial that the case wasn’t about science or DNA.
Instead, Kitt explained, the case is about “jealousy, rage and obsession.” The argument is that Chandler is the only person with motive and opportunity to commit the crime. Chandler’s alibi is that she was driving around the mountains of Colorado when Sisco and Harkness were killed. She lived in Denver at the time.
The physical evidence in the case is limited to 11 shell casings and hair collected at the scene, along with a piece of chewing gum that was recovered from a neighbor’s patio.
DNA from the gum and a limb hair attached to one of the shell casings didn’t match Chandler. Authorities never entered the DNA into police or genealogy databases to try to find a match.
No DNA test has been done on other hair that was gathered with a vacuum at the crime scene.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation unsuccessfully attempted to retrieve DNA from the ridge of eight shell casings. It wasn’t clear why only eight were tested, or why they didn’t try to find DNA from the flat end of the casing, where the killer’s thumb would have shoved the bullet into the chamber and possibly left “touch DNA” behind.
Police then sent the 11 shell casings to a lab in the United Kingdom to try to obtain fingerprints. The process was unsuccessful and, because the shell casings were submerged in a liquid solution, any remaining DNA would be destroyed.
Volle signed the orders for testing of the gum and shell casings, but he testified Tuesday he was being directed to do so by the district attorney’s office. He couldn’t say why there were no police reports about the activity.
“Does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?” Bath asked.
A lab note indicated former District Attorney Chad Taylor in 2009 was interested in testing evidence before “48 Hours” aired its episode about the case. The TV show for the first time publicly identified Chandler as a suspect.
Staff with “48 Hours,” “Dateline NBC” and an HBO documentary are present at the retrial.
Rios said the case was expected to go to the jury on Thursday.