High-profile Kansas trial hinges on ‘jealousy, rage and obsession’ — without physical evidence

Retrial in 20-year-old killings follows disbarment of former prosecutor for lying to jury

By: - August 5, 2022 5:52 pm
Dana Chandler is being retried in Shawnee County District Court for the 2002 killings of her ex-husband and his fiancee. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Dana Chandler is being retried in Shawnee County District Court for the 2002 killings of her ex-husband and his fiancee. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Shawnee County prosecutor on Friday told jurors to forget about science as he laid out the circumstantial evidence connecting Dana Chandler to the 20-year-old killings of her ex-husband and his fiancee.

All of the physical evidence in the case, including DNA collected from the crime scene, excludes Chandler, the defense countered.

Chandler is being retried in a case that captivated national attention more than a decade ago when police and a politically ambitious district attorney teamed with “48 Hours” to identify her as the likely killer in an unsolved crime of passion, then coordinated with news media to film and photograph her arrest. Jacqie Spradling, the lead prosecutor in the case, won a conviction in 2012 by lying to the jury about nonexistent evidence.

The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the basis of Spradling’s misconduct, then disbarred her after a prolonged disciplinary process.

Opening arguments began Friday following years of motion hearings about evidence, and days of questioning of prospective jurors. Chandler is charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

A documentary crew from HBO is filming the trial. Staff from “48 Hours” and “Dateline NBC” are also in attendance, along with local reporters and Lamonte McIntyre, an innocent man who spent 23 years in prison after being convicted in Wyandotte County. McIntyre is a co-founder of Miracle of Innocence, an Overland Park nonprofit, which is supporting Chandler’s defense in the case.

Prosecutor Charles Kitt told jurors there was no indication of forced entry or theft at the southwest Topeka duplex where Mike Sisco and Karen Harkness were shot to death in 2002. Family members told police that Chandler was upset about a bitter divorce and child custody dispute, and phone records showed Chandler called Sisco 700 times in the seven months before his death. She showed up randomly, and uninvited, at Sisco’s house and family gatherings. Harkness sent emails describing Chandler as “nutty.”

At the time, Chandler lived in Denver. She told police she was driving around the mountains of Colorado when her ex-husband was killed. But she didn’t tell police about the two gas cans she purchased, which could have helped her drive to Topeka and back without stopping multiple times to buy gas along the way.

“Science is not going to solve this case,” Kitt said. “This case is not based on DNA. This case is not based on hair. This case is not based on fingerprints. This case is based on jealousy, rage and obsession.”

Chandler appeared in court wearing dark blue dress pants, a light blue button-up shirt and a cardigan. She shook her head and took notes during open arguments.

Her defense attorney, Tom Bath, told jurors she was 700 miles away from Topeka when Sisco and Harkness were killed. After 20 years of reviewing evidence, prosecutors are still unable to find anything that indicates Chandler was in the house, in Topeka, or even in the state of Kansas, on the day of their deaths.

Police, he said, had tunnel vision for Chandler and refused to consider other suspects.

“Everything they looked at, everything they examined, excluded Dana,” Bath said. “Not just the DNA. Not just the hair and fiber. Fingerprints, everything.”

Bath referenced an arm hair singed on a shell casing found at the scene. The DNA didn’t match Chandler or the victims.

“It’s the killer’s DNA,” Bath said.

In the four years leading up the retrial, Chandler and her rotating cast of attorneys have tried to emphasize the failure by police to look at other suspects. A judge authorized a DNA test for Harkness’ son-in-law, but the defense hasn’t disclosed the results of that test.

Bath told jurors about another possible suspect, Terry Tignor, and the failure of police to pursue a lead involving an attempt a week after the killings to cash a check that had been stolen from Sisco. If police followed up with the possible suspect — who was friends with Sisco’s daughter’s boyfriend — the records were lost, Bath said.

In a preliminary hearing before the retrial, a prostitute claimed Tignor had confessed to the killings before he was shot and killed by a woman in 2020. Prosecutors considered the shooting to be in self defense.

Former Shawnee County prosecutor Jacqie Spradling arrives Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, at the Kansas Supreme Court for a disciplinary hearing. The court disbarred her for a pattern of misconduct. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Former Shawnee County prosecutor Jacqie Spradling arrives Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, at the Kansas Supreme Court for a disciplinary hearing. The court disbarred her for a pattern of misconduct. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Former Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor took office in January 2009 after defeating an incumbent who refused to file charges against Chandler. He formed a cold case unit, led by Spradling, to bolster his profile as he prepared to run for U.S. Senate. The Democrat was pressured by his own party to withdraw from the race in 2014.

Taylor now faces an ethics complaint for assisting and overseeing Spradling during the first trial.

Spradling repeatedly referred to a nonexistent protection from abuse order she claimed Sisco had obtained against Chandler. She fabricated the subject of a five-minute phone call between Chandler and Sisco shortly before the murders. She falsely claimed Chandler had researched articles about how to get away with murder.

In closing remarks before the jury, Spradling violated a judge’s order by pointing to Chandler’s sister in the courtroom. Spradling said Chandler had robbed Sisco’s children of their father, despite knowing it is improper for a prosecutor to comment on the effect a crime has on a victim’s family.

Earlier this year, the Kansas Supreme Court disbarred Spradling for “a serious pattern of grossly unethical misconduct.” The decision was based on her actions in the Chandler trial.

During the jury selection this week, it became clear that many of the prospective jurors were familiar with the earlier trial. District Judge Cheryl Rios rejected motions by Bath to move the trial or dismiss the jury pool, but she agreed to read a statement telling jurors that Chandler’s previous conviction was a result of Spradling’s misconduct.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the significance of Chandler’s purchase of two gas cans.

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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. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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