Jacqie Spradling admitted mistakes in Dana Chandler, Jacob Ewing trials. What happens now?
The fate of former Shawnee County prosecutor Jacqie Spradling’s legal career now rests in the hands of a three-attorney panel from the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys after a weeklong hearing to determine if her actions during two high-profile trials rose to a level of improper conduct and error.
During a weeklong hearing, investigators with the state disciplinary office for attorneys looked to establish that in the trials of Dana Chandler in 2012 and Jacob Ewing in 2017, Spradling had mistakes so severe that they amounted to prosecutorial misconduct and prosecutorial error. The complaints have taken years to investigate given the complexity of the cases and the fact the cases were later ruled on by higher courts, the office claimed.
Spradling had won convictions against Chandler for the 2002 killings of her former husband, Mike Sisco, and his fiancée, Karen Harkness, while Spradling won convictions against Ewing in 2017 for two counts of rape and four counts of criminal sodomy, in addition to various other related charges. Chandler and Ewing won later appeals.
With the hearing now over, Spradling, who is now the Bourbon County attorney and an assistant county attorney in Allen County, is waiting for a report that could determine if she will be allowed to continue practicing law.
The past week’s hearing is the culmination of two separate complaints made against Spradling for her alleged misconduct during the Chandler and Ewing trials.
In the Chandler trial, the disciplinary administrator’s office alleges that Spradling either knowingly or incompetently made false claims about the existence of a protection from abuse order that Sisco had supposedly obtained against Chandler.
The office further asserts that Spradling continued to lie about what she knew about the non-existent protection from abuse order when the case was appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which found that Spradling had committed substantial enough errors to overturn Chandler’s conviction and have her face a new trial.
Additionally, Spradling made other claims that were later acknowledged as false or unsupported by evidence, including: a claim that Chandler had allegedly returned to her home in Denver via Nebraska to evade law enforcement; that she learned of Sisco’s impending wedding to Harkness from a five-minute phone call days before the murder; and that she accessed articles on The Topeka Capital-Journal’s website on how to get away with murder.
Spradling was also accused separately of maliciously violating Judge Nancy Parrish’s order not to refer to members of the courtroom’s gallery during proceedings. Keen Umbehr, a lawyer who has previously assisted Chandler with legal work as part of her trial, filed a complaint against Spradling for these claims in 2016.
In the Ewing trial, Spradling is accused of making additional unsupported claims, including a claim that one of the Ewing’s alleged victims was low-functioning as part of an alleged ploy for sympathy; a claim that Ewing’s DNA could only have gotten on the inside of a pair of the victim’s underwear from his actions; and inflaming the passions of the jury by referring to a social media campaign from Ewing’s family to undermine the witnesses’ credibility.
Ewing’s mother, Wendy Ewing, filed the complaint in 2018 alongside an appeal to the Kansas Court of Appeals, which later also remanded Ewing’s conviction. Both he and Chandler face retrials in the coming year.
In trying the complaints against Spradling, Matt Vogelsberg, the deputy disciplinary administrator representing the office, looked to argue that not only had Spradling mistakenly made unsupported claims, but that she did so either knowingly and maliciously or that she had done so unknowingly but incompetently. Vogelsberg asked the panel to recommend indefinitely suspending Spradling.
Spradling’s attorney LJ Leatherman, on the other hand, conceded that Spradling had made various mistakes, but none rose to the level of misconduct or incompetence as alleged by Vogelsberg.
Rather, Leatherman said that Spradling had either made good-faith mistakes in misstating the evidence, relying on investigator’s inferred but unsupported theories about the cases, and making inferences that while obvious, should not have been made with evidence in the court record to support them.
Each side called various witnesses to the stand, most of whom had some connection to the case, such as investigators who testified as to what they had told Spradling ahead of the cases.
Richard Volle, a retired Topeka Police Department sergeant and lead detective in the Sisco and Harkness homicides, testified that he made a mistake in agreeing with Spradling’s unsupported assertion that a protection from abuse order existed, and that Spradling should have done more to properly back up theories they had developed during the case.
But he insisted that Spradling was one of the most competent and well-prepared prosecutors he had ever worked with.
“She is the bane of detectives,” he said, since Spradling typically had investigators work their cases repeatedly to reach her high standards.
Spradling herself took the stand Thursday and admitted to the mistakes, saying all prosecutors look to avoid the kinds of embarrassing and painful mistakes she made and that eventually led to overturned convictions.
“My responsibility as a prosecutor,” she testified emotionally during questioning from Leatherman, “is to protect people. And I failed in these cases.”
What happens next?
While the weeklong hearing held most of the same weight and procedure of a regular courtroom trial, the disciplinary hearing itself technically won’t determine what happens to Spradling.
Rather, the hearing panel — made up of two attorney members of the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys and one at-large attorney — will deliberate on the evidence and testimonies presented during the hearing, and collectively, they will put together a report.
In that report, the panel could find that Spradling’s conduct was not severe enough to warrant discipline, or the panel could also simply caution Spradling against future misconduct or error.
Alternatively, the panel could also find that Spradling acted so irresponsibly and recklessly in impeding the fair administration of justice that harsher discipline is necessary. In that case, the panel would note in its report to the Kansas Supreme Court that it recommends discipline like definite or indefinite suspension, or even disbarment.
To reiterate, the Kansas Supreme Court would be the ultimate arbiter of any discipline, and the court could even decide to reject any recommendation from the panel and make its own determination as to what Spradling should face.