Judge admits she made mistake with nonexistent evidence in murder case

By: - December 9, 2020 1:57 pm

Jacqie Spradling, left, arrives with her legal team Monday for a hearing into alleged misconduct by Spradling as a prosecutor in Shawnee and Jackson counties. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Shawnee County District Judge Nancy Parrish took responsibility Wednesday for inappropriate comments Jacqie Spradling made to the jury in a high-profile murder case.

Spradling faces ethics charges for her conduct as the prosecutor in the 2012 trial of Dana Chandler in Shawnee County and 2017 trial of Jacob Ewing in Jackson County. Both cases were overturned on appeal because Spradling misled juries about evidence.

A three-member disciplinary panel tasked with reviewing complaints against attorneys is hearing evidence about Spradling’s behavior in those two cases. The hearing started Monday.

Parrish presided over the trial of Chandler, who was charged with killing her ex-husband, Mike Sisco, and has fiancee, Karen Harkness, in 2002. Parrish said she made a mistake by allowing Spradling to talk about a protection from abuse order that didn’t exist.

Sisco had applied for a temporary restraining order, which is a different kind of order, when he divorced Chandler four years before the murders. That request is standard procedure during the litigation of divorce filings, and it was never granted.

Spradling, apparently relying on conversations a Topeka police detective had with members of Sisco’s family, told the jury in closing arguments that a protection from abuse order was in place at the time of the murders and that Chandler had violated the order by breaking into Sisco’s home. The judge had granted the prosecutor’s motion to make those claims, even though there wasn’t evidence to support them.

“I take responsibility for a part of that,” Parrish said. “I think we went down that track in error.”

Judges in Kansas are forbidden from serving as character witnesses, but Parrish was subpoenaed to appear on Spradling’s behalf. Part of Spradling’s defense is there was no intent to make false statements to the jury, and Parrish said she believed Spradling wanted the trial to be fair.

Parrish also said she believed Spradling inadvertently violated the judge’s order against signaling out courtroom observers during closing arguments. One of the complaints against Spradling is that she violated the order when she told the jury to check out the look she was getting from Chandler’s sister. Parrish told the disciplinary review panel she thought it was a “technical violation.”

On Tuesday, retired Topeka Police Sgt. Richard Volle told the review panel he had spoken to Spradling about his theories of how Chandler could have committed the murders. Some of those theories were repeated as fact by Spradling at trial, such as the baseless claim that Chandler had returned from Topeka to Denver by way of Nebraska after committing the murders.

Spradling questioned Volle on the stand during the Chandler trial, and the detective inaccurately said Sisco had obtained a protection from abuse order against Chandler. He was corrected under cross-examination.

Still, during closing arguments, Spradling told the jurors they knew Chandler was guilty because Sisco had obtained the order and Chandler had violated it.

Gary West, a deputy disciplinary administrator, said Spradling was attempting to “connect the dots” for the jury by wrongly relying on nonexistent evidence.

“The dot that wasn’t there,” Parrish replied.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.