TOPEKA — The appeal of Dana Chandler’s convictions for execution of a Topeka couple set in motion an unpredictable case of role reversal by essentially placing on trial the tough-as-nails former Shawnee County prosecutor accused of traversing the boundaries of courtroom ethics to win the cold-case verdicts.
Hanging in the balance are first-degree murder judgments secured by Jacqie Spradling, who served as chief deputy district attorney and took on the stalled case with then-District Attorney Chad Taylor. They tattooed Chandler as a narcissistic, brooding woman seething with enough hate to assassinate her ex-husband, Michael Sisco, and his girlfriend, Karen Harkness, on July 7, 2002.
A Kansas Supreme Court order reversing the convictions would be a declaration that Chandler’s constitutionally protected right to a fair trial was abridged. The justices could remand the case for retrial or simply free Chandler. Such a ruling would inflame the suffering of the victims’ family and friends. A finding of prosecutorial error at the trial could invite sanctions against the prosecution team, and Shawnee County’s new district attorney would have to decide whether to retry Chandler more than 15 years after the murders.
Or the seven-member high court could issue a ruling to preserve the convictions by affirming justice prevailed despite an imperfect trial. That would guarantee Chandler remains locked up for the rest of her life — unless she won relief in federal court.
The Supreme Court’s powerful legal microscope has eerily pivoted beyond actions attributed to Chandler to the work of Spradling and, to a lesser extent, Taylor. During oral argument of Chandler’s appeal, members of the Supreme Court offered withering critiques of actions by the prosecution during the 2012 trial. A majority of the court invited Spradling to rebut allegations of misconduct.
Three justices fixated on the same point. They were distressed Spradling told the trial jury that Sisco secured a court protective order in 1998 to shield him from Chandler. Spradling referenced this supposed order in a written brief to the Supreme Court and offered a puzzling defense of the assertion in person.
“How else do we know the defendant is guilty?” Spradling confidently told jurors at close of the trial. “Mike got a protection from abuse, a court order. He applied and said, ‘Hey, judge, please order this woman to stay away from me.’ And, the judge agreed. The protection from abuse order did not stop the defendant, though.”
In fact, there was no proof Sisco obtained a protective order, and Spradling knew it.
She publicly conceded five years after the trial the claim couldn’t be proven. It was a poisonous moment for a prosecutor clinging to guilty verdicts.
“It seems pretty obvious to me there was no protection from abuse order in this case,” said Supreme Court Justice Dan Biles. “The state can’t talk about things that don’t exist.”
Spradling’s references to a protection order shaped for jurors the image of a profoundly hostile person capable of murdering the father of her children and his fiancee. It adhered to a narrative broadcast on national television by “48 Hours” that Chandler perpetrated a crime of vengeance.
“That’s what this case is about,” Spradling said, with cameras rolling in court. “She was put on the curb by a man she wasn’t willing or ready to let go.”
Justices of the Supreme Court and Chandler’s lawyers objected to a half-dozen other trial issues that might have prejudiced the jury. More broadly, the judicial record in Kansas reveals additional trials handled by Spradling indicative of overzealous prosecution.
Filling a 10-year gap
The bodies of Sisco, 47, and Harkness, 53, were found in a basement bedroom of a southwest Topeka residence. They were discovered by Harkness’ father, Harold Worswick. He felt his daughter’s leg. It was cold to the touch. So was Sisco’s.
The coroner and a KBI scientist testified neither died instantly. Investigators believe the killer stood in darkness while pouring at least five rounds from a 9 mm weapon into both as they slept. The bullets came from the same firearm, pointing to a lone gunman.
Some members of the Harkness and Sisco families believe the couple planned to tell their elderly parents, on the Sunday they died, of a decision to marry.
Chandler, now 57, hastily became the primary person of interest, according to Topeka Police Department reports.
The 16-year marriage of Chandler and Sisco was fragile, but their divorce proceeding was ghastly. There were allegations of extramarital affairs, child neglect, alcoholism and rape. Chandler maneuvered to avoid signing papers terminating the union. Sisco was granted custody of their two children after a battle in Douglas County District Court. The parental relationship remained poor. Chandler’s conduct, including bizarre spying of Sisco in Lawrence and Topeka, demonstrated her struggle to let go.
Chandler was living in Denver at the time of the murders. It was unclear whether she could have pulled off the crime given the time frame and 1,100-mile distance to and from Topeka. There is lingering speculation the crime scene was inadvertently compromised. No forensic evidence linked Chandler to the house. No murder weapon emerged. No eyewitness placed her in Topeka. No confession was forthcoming.
Police reports said Chandler’s alibi, muddled by her hazy recollection of detail, was she spent half the fatal weekend hiking and driving in the Colorado mountains and the other half in or near her Denver apartment.
After an initial flurry of activity, the homicide investigation stalled. District Attorney Robert Hecht declined to charge Chandler. Hecht said he couldn’t discuss specifics of a case on appeal, but he felt strongly about the imperative for prosecutors to serve the interests of justice.
“Prosecutors are different than other lawyers who represent individual clients,” Hecht said. “Prosecutors represent the state as a whole. Their obligation is not to win or lose cases at all cost. It is to do justice. They serve not as lawyers, but as ministers of justice.”
After replacing Hecht as district attorney in 2009, Taylor began positioning himself as a law-and-order district attorney worthy of statewide attention.
Taylor made the Harkness-Sisco cold case a priority, declaring time had come to “bring justice for the families.” Shortly after taking office, Taylor began collaborating with CBS News’ “48 Hours” on an episode calculated to revive local public interest in the slayings and create a national appetite for answers to an unsolved mystery. The show’s producers were given extraordinary access to confidential investigative materials.
According to a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent, part of a “master plan” developed with the district attorney’s office to smoke out Chandler called for the TV show’s segment on her to be rebroadcast again and again.
Days before Chandler was arrested for murder in 2011, KBI Agent Mark Malick and Spradling interrogated Chandler’s sister, Shirley Riegel. The conversation was an effort to flip Riegel, who was allowing Chandler to live in a trailer on her property in Duncan, Okla.
“I’m 100-percent convinced that she’s responsible for those deaths,” Malick told Riegel. “I believe your sister was sick.”
Spradling said she could charge Riegel with aiding a felon. She asked Riegel to take a polygraph.
“No,” Riegel said.
“You’re covering for her,” Spradling said.
“I do not think for one minute that she could kill somebody,” Riegel said. “I don’t think that Dana has that in her.”
The city of Duncan was ravaged by a 102-degree heat wave July 25, 2011 — Chandler’s last day of freedom. Spradling, Taylor, a “48 Hours” camera crew and a reporter with the Topeka Capital-Journal were part of the law enforcement entourage in town tracking Chandler. In an Arby’s parking lot, Kansas and Oklahoma officers converged to arrest her on two counts of first-degree murder.
Spradling was placed at the forefront of Shawnee County’s effort to build a circumstantial case premised on Chandler’s alleged resentment at her ex-husband’s desire to remarry. Without DNA or fingerprint evidence linked to Chandler, the prosecution fashioned a straitjacket theory fitting one person — a lonely woman with advancing gray hair and a monkey on her back.
“State’s case is not based on a house of cards,” Spradling said. “I’m proud of the work on that case.”
At the crime scene, Topeka police said, there was no sign of a struggle. It didn’t feel like a burglary or robbery. Police said the shootings weren’t related to drugs or sexual assault.
TPD’s lead investigator, Richard Volle, said Chandler’s reaction to the deaths of Sisco and Harkness was suspicious. She didn’t ask the typical questions of why, when or how, he said.
Chandler outlined for police her route through the mountains on the day of the slayings. But her vehicle didn’t show up on surveillance videotape at entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park, which Chandler would have to pass through for her alibi to hold. Late on the day Harkness and Sisco died, Chandler purchased a new set of clothes at a Walmart near her Denver home. She tossed her other garments, she said, which were bloodied by the onset of her menstrual cycle.
Spradling’s theory of guilt incorporated Chandler’s purchase of two gas cans before the slayings, allegedly to allow someone to drive from Topeka to Denver without buying fuel. She noted Chandler didn’t use her cellphone, personal computer or credit cards for a 27-hour span around the time of the killings.
Vernon Geberth, a retired New York City Police Department commander hired as a consultant to TPD, said in a report completed in 2007 that evidence available at that time would lead a reasonable person to a simple conclusion.
“Chandler is the one and only person who had the motive, means and opportunity to have committed these murders,” Geberth said.
Spradling said the obvious lack of hard evidence against Chandler should be framed as confirmation of premeditation. In an attempt to help jurors visualize how Chandler might have avoided leaving fingerprints or hairs at the crime scene, Taylor dramatically wore a pair of dark gloves and a stocking cap while questioning at trial TPD officer Kris Kramer, who now serves as interim police chief.
On the defensive
Defense attorney Mark Bennett, who represented Chandler, said the prosecution’s case was built on a fractured foundation. No credible evidence placed Chandler in the state, in Topeka or in the Harkness residence on July 6 to 7, 2002, he said.
He said the state’s tunnel vision ignored other potential suspects. He characterized handling of the crime scene as “pretty sloppy police work.” Nine years after the murders, laboratory analysis of an arm hair stuck to a shell casing found in the Harkness bedroom showed it belonged to someone other than Chandler, Harkness and Sisco. That person has never been identified.
“The Topeka Police Department ought to be ashamed of what occurred in this case,” Bennett said. “It boggles the mind.”
He said Spradling and Taylor flexed facts like an accordion.
“Charges against Dana Chandler were based on speculation, conjecture, maybes, might-haves,” Bennett said. “Just raw oral claims of what the evidence is from the people that are trying to convict the defendant doesn’t cut the mustard.”
At times, Bennett appeared overwhelmed by the flow of documents and witnesses offered by the prosecution. He joked about being a pen-and-legal-pad lawyer.
He didn’t block at trial the playing of the recording of a Shawnee County Jail conversation between Chandler and one of her sisters that might have nudged the jury toward conviction. The sisters chillingly spoke about the death of Patti Williams, an Amoco employee in WaKeeney who told investigators she recalled someone resembling Chandler at the station in July 2002.
“The defendant and her sister Shirley were celebrating that Patti Williams had passed away,” Spradling said.
The jury’s initial vote split between conviction and acquittal. After reviewing circumstantial evidence in the case, the jury voted unanimously to convict Chandler on two counts of first-degree murder. Chandler didn’t react much to reading of the verdicts. She turned to a few family members and shrugged her shoulders. Others in the courtroom wept and hugged.
“The way the bodies were positioned, the way the shots were fired, there was rage,” said presiding juror Kay Brundage.
Before exiting the courtroom, Chandler vowed to appeal the convictions secured by Spradling and Taylor. Some members of Kansas’ appellate courts already were familiar with Spradling’s work as a prosecutor.
Spradling grew up in Topeka and earned a law degree at Washburn University in 1991. She spent 15 years in the Johnson County District Attorney’s office but was fired by District Attorney Phill Kline for alleged insubordination. Spradling settled a subsequent gender discrimination lawsuit against Kline when the state agreed to pay her $350,000.
After a brief stint at the Kansas attorney general’s office, Spradling accepted a Shawnee County job prosecuting homicide, child sexual abuse and animal cruelty cases. Taylor considered her one of the nation’s top prosecutors because she was“tenacious in pursuing where she believes there has been a wrong that needs to be right.”
In addition to the Chandler case, other appeals of criminal cases handled by Spradling raised fair trial questions.
In the 2014 appeal of William Holt II, the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction for first-degree murder while vacating part of his sentence. The court said Spradling committed “gross and flagrant misconduct” at Holt’s trial.
The majority opinion said Spradling made improper statements designed to convince the jury to convict Holt based on the irrelevant fact the victim’s children were left without a father. Justice Lee Johnson’s dissent called for reversal of Holt’s convictions because Spradling incorrectly told the jury the case was about the “difference between possible and probable.” Johnson said a jury’s duty is to decide whether the prosecution proved the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Diluting the state’s burden of proof from beyond a reasonable doubt to a mere probability is a game changer,” Johnson said.
While working in the Shawnee County district attorney’s office, Spradling was appointed temporary special prosecutor in Marshall County. Her task was to deal with Stephen Macomber, who went on a 2010 crime spree that included a Nebraska bank heist, a Topeka homicide and the wounding of a sheriff’s deputy in Marshall County.
The Kansas Court of Appeals in 2013 upheld Macomber’s conviction on attempted first-degree murder for shooting the deputy. The panel also concluded Spradling misstated to the jury the legal definition of premeditation, tried to stoke emotions by asking the jury to send an empathetic message to the injured deputy, and twisted Macomber’s statement denying a robbery charge into a confession to other crimes.
In Shawnee County, Macomber was later found guilty of second-degree murder in the homicide. The Court of Appeals reversed that verdict because Spradling shouldn’t have raised at the Topeka trial evidence of Macomber shooting the deputy.
“We have no difficulty concluding that virtually none of the evidence presented to the jury concerning the encounter between Macomber and (Deputy Fernando) Salcedo was relevant,” the appellate judges said.
In a second trial in 2015, Macomber was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
In 1999, the Court of Appeals overturned for the second time Eduardo Rodriguez-Garcia’s conviction in Johnson County for attempted second-degree murder. The court said Spradling improperly shared with the second trial jury the testimony of a reluctant witness who appeared at the first trial.
“The admission of the victim’s previous preliminary and trial testimony without foundation … requires reversal,” the appellate panel said.
Spradling later dropped charges against Rodriguez-Garcia.
The ‘Hard 100’
Chandler, known as Inmate No. 103868 at Topeka Correctional Facility, didn’t take the stand in her own defense. Representing herself at sentencing, Chandler told family members she hoped they found peace. She professed her innocence.
“I did not murder Mike or Karen,” she said. “There was no evidence that I ever owned or possessed a weapon used to commit this crime, nor that there was any evidence that I was at the crime scene.”
Wearing unfashionable, loose-fitting jail overalls, Chandler uttered those words on the 30th anniversary of her 1982 wedding to Sisco.
In that same courtroom, Hailey Sisco said she and her brother, Dustin, who were teenagers at the time of their father’s death, were left to carry deep emotional scars. Hailey Sisco referred to her mother as a monster incapable of loving others.
“It was really hard to accept that our mother did the unthinkable,” she said. “She cowardly snuck up on my dad and Karen in their most vulnerable state, sleeping, and selfishly shot into their defenseless bodies to satisfy a sick desire.”
Tim Sisco, brother of Michael Sisco, said he dropped to his knees when told of the murders in 2002.
“First thought that came to my mind was Dana did this,” he said.
Five family members requested that Chandler receive the maximum sentence. Taylor asked the trial judge to issue a pair of “Hard 50” sentences.
District Judge Nancy Parrish hit Chandler with back-to-back life sentences, each with a mandatory minimum of 50 years’ imprisonment. It meant Chandler couldn’t be considered for parole until 2111.
Parrish said Chandler likely felt omnipotent as years rolled by without her being held accountable.
“I’m sure you believed that you had gotten away with murder, but that is not the case,” Parrish said.
Chandler, who appealed her murder convictions in 2015, has proven to be a difficult client. In her quest for legal redemption, she burned through lawyer after lawyer.
Her fifth court-appointed appellate attorney, Nancy Ogle, missed five extensions of time to submit a brief to the Supreme Court. Once filed, she made a persuasive argument that Chandler’s 50-year sentences had to be vacated to allow resentencing in district court. Based on a 2014 Supreme Court ruling, state law for imposing the “Hard 50” violated the U.S. Constitution. The district attorney’s office and Supreme Court justices agreed on the need for resentencing.
Still, absent a reversal, a sentence forbidding parole for just 50 years would guarantee Chandler remained a Kansas Department of Corrections inmate until her death.
Ogle, who participated in oral arguments before the Supreme Court in early 2016, asserted Spradling committed reversible error in closing arguments to the jury and produced insufficient evidence to back convictions. She said Spradling engaged in “inference stacking,” which involves pyramiding extrapolation to construct a case. In this instance, she said, the prosecution’s misconduct bolstered a presumption that Chandler killed while engulfed by envy.
“The state’s improper statements and theories went to the heart of the case and would have been given great weight by the jury,” Ogle argued. “If the jury had not accepted the state’s theory of motive, it would not have convicted Chandler.”
In addition, Ogle said the trial judge admitted improper evidence. Taylor said that claim was ludicrous.
“It was absolutely reasonable, and it put in place more safeguards than have probably ever been afforded another defendant in this courthouse,” Taylor said.
Ogle was allowed to resign as Chandler’s appellate counsel, leaving Overland Park attorney Adam Stolte to deal with Chandler’s appeal. He had the advantage of writing after the Supreme Court’s aggressive questioning of Spradling during oral argument.
Stolte noted issues raised by the justices and accused Spradling of improperly exposing the jury to results of a Lawrence psychologist’s evaluation of Chandler. Spradling said the report showed Chandler to be an “immature and egocentric person who may not have developed appropriate ways of expressing anger.” That assessment, Stolte said, was later prohibited from being admitted into evidence.
“The prosecutor’s comments were meant to prejudice the jury and were not based on a good faith belief that the evidence would be presented at trial,” Stolte said. “The prosecutor’s comments in opening statements were so egregious that it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the jury could ‘unring the bell’ in light of any evidence presented.”
In Chandler’s words
Chandler submitted to the Supreme Court a handwritten appellate brief urging justices to throw out her convictions because of insufficient evidence, prejudicial publicity and prosecutorial wrongdoing.
“There was no direct evidence and the circumstantial evidence was not factually established to support inferences involved so as to exclude all reasonable doubt,” Chandler said.
Chandler said “pseudo-justice garnished with mischaracterizations” swayed the jury. She accused her trial attorney of being ill-prepared. In Chandler’s view, years of media coverage prejudiced her ability to get a fair trial.
Included in her brief was a claim the affidavit of probable cause leading to her arrest in Oklahoma was invalid. She said Shawnee County District Judge Richard Anderson shouldn’t have used it to validate an arrest warrant for Chandler. Theaffidavit was prepared by TPD’s Richard Volle, the department’s primary investigator in the Chandler case. The affidavit was signed and sworn to be accurate by police Lt. Kipp Low, who may have lacked full knowledge of its contents. Parrish, thetrial judge, said she had “grave concerns” about the affidavit.
Chandler also accused TPD and Shawnee County prosecutors of failing to consider all forensic evidence at the crime scene. She was puzzled Spradling didn’t enter into evidence 1,200 pages of cell tower records that might have pinpointed Chandler’s whereabouts during the murders.
In the written brief, Chandler complained one prosecution witness changed testimony between the preliminary hearing and trial and that a witness couldn’t recall whether her memory of conversations with Chandler “were reality or dreams.”
She also challenged selection of the jury, alleging she was “wrongfully convicted by what I believe was a partial jury manipulated by the court officials.”
Justices pile on
Four members of the Supreme Court put Spradling on the spot during oral argument of Chandler’s appeal.
Justice Carol Beier challenged Spradling’s depiction of a five-minute phone conversation involving Sisco and Chandler days before the shootings in 2002. The prosecution didn’t produce a witness with direct knowledge of what was said, but Spradling asked the jury to believe that Sisco told Chandler of his engagement to Harkness.
“That’s in evidence?” Beier said. “What’s your evidence on what happened in the phone call?”
“The phone call,” Spradling said, “and the timing of the murders immediately after that.”
“That’s just reasoning backward from what happened later,” Beier said. “Do you have any direct evidence? Or any kind of evidence?”
“Not that I can promise you is in the record rather than just in my mind,” Spradling said.
Justice Eric Rosen, a former Shawnee County trial judge, took exception to Spradling’s violation of the trial judge’s instruction not to engage in theatrics by addressing people in the courtroom gallery during the trial.
“You were warned not to do that and you did it anyway,” Rosen said. “Why isn’t that misconduct?”
Justice Biles accused Spradling of lying about Sisco obtaining a protection from abuse order on Chandler.
“You’ll agree that there was no protection from abuse order?” Biles said.
“I’ll agree that there was no protection from abuse order,” Spradling said.
“Even though you said there was,” Biles said.
“Yes, sir,” Spradling said.
Justice Johnson said he was troubled Spradling kept bringing up a protection order despite having no evidence it existed. Spradling said she couldn’t produce a document proving the order was real.
“There’s no document in that file that is either a protection from abuse or a protective order,” Spradling said. “So if I indicated that there was a document, I don’t want to mislead you.”
New D.A. on defensive
Taylor, who once harbored aspirations to leap from the district attorney’s office to the U.S. Senate, left office in January. He didn’t seek re-election in a campaign that would have been complicated by fallout from a lawsuit alleging he discriminated against employees in the district attorney’s office. Spradling also stepped down from the DA’s office.
At this stage, District Attorney Michael Kagay is responsible for defense of Shawnee County’s case against Chandler. He was a member of Taylor’s staff before being elected district attorney in November.
Kagay responded to Chandler’s brief to the Supreme Court by stating Taylor and Spradling did nothing to merit reversal of the convictions. He said neither “committed any prosecutorial error, violated the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct or represented the state in an unethical or inappropriate manner.”
In a brief, Kagay argued that any mistake by Spradling regarding the purported protection from abuse order was inconsequential.
“The prosecutor’s comment regarding a protection from abuse order was a misstatement, but is overcome by the weight of the evidence,” Kagay said. “The protection order was not the crux of the case. The state’s strong circumstantial evidence established motive and opportunity.”
He said Spradling and Taylor didn’t rely on inference stacking to bolster their case, an issue that drew the Supreme Court’s interest.
“Chandler has not shown prejudice or bad faith by the prosecutor,” Kagay said. “As often occurs in trial, the proof a party anticipates does not always materialize.”
The short list of Chandler’s defenders includes Keen and Eileen Umbehr. They have followed the case since 2002 and believe Chandler to be innocent. They urged police to investigate an alternative suspect.
Eileen Umbehr, who attended every day of Chandler’s preliminary hearing and trial, said she believes the prosecution’s transgressions went “beyond unethical to criminal.”
“I’m not talking about human error or mere oversight here. I believe that Jacqie Spradling knowingly and intentionally manipulated timelines, coached witnesses and presented misinformation. Jacqie Spradling treated the Dana Chandler trial like a Broadway production — and she was the writer, producer and director of the entire smoke-and-mirrors charade.”
Keen Umbehr, a defense attorney who lost a campaign last year for district attorney in Shawnee County, filed a complaint with the state alleging Spradling violated Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct in prosecution of Chandler.
“Prosecutors have been given great powers over the liberty of every citizen,” he said. “Coupled with that great power is the heavy burden of responsibility to protect the due process rights of the accused.”
While the Umbehrs remain in Chandler’s corner, another attentive observer of the trial reached a different conclusion.
“Were you there listening to it? I was,” said April Shepard, a court reporter who worked the Chandler trial. “I will not say that I agreed with everything Jacqie Spradling said or did, but it didn’t change anything. Dana Chandler is not innocent. She may get a new trial, but the outcome will be the same. No one else would’ve done this but Dana Chandler.”