A judge on Friday sentenced Jason Nichols, of Garden City, to life in prison on a terrorism charge for holding 25th Judicial District Chief Judge Wendel Wurst hostage in his home in May 2016.
In July, a jury found Nichols guilty on seven charges: terrorism, an off-grid felony; kidnapping, a level three person felony; aggravated burglary, a level five person felony; two counts of aggravated assault, a level seven person felony; criminal threat, a level nine person felony; and criminal restraint, a Class A misdemeanor.
Nichols will be eligible for parole after 20 years on the terrorism charge, and sentences on each of the remaining counts — six and a half years total — can be served concurrently.
Retired Chief Judge Jack Burr of the 15th Judicial District sentenced Nichols according to standard sentencing guidelines.
During the sentencing hearing, Nichols’ defense attorney Jonathan McConnell of Wichita called Judge Wurst to testify.
When asked what sentence Wurst found appropriate, Wurst said he thought a life sentence would be excessive, but that Nichols should face the consequences for his “outrageous behavior.” Wurst said in conclusion that he would support a durational departure from a life sentence to 12 years in prison.
“I don’t think we will be endangered, whether he serves 10 years or 20 years,” Wurst said.
McConnell also filed a motion to dismiss the remaining charge of terrorism.
“Essentially, we’re arguing two things,” McConnell said. “One, the statute is unconstitutional as applied to Jason in this case, and in the alternative, there is insufficient evidence to support a conviction.”
McConnell said there is no evidence to support that Nichols had an intent to affect the operations of the Kansas Department of Revenue.
Kansas law defines terrorism to include the commission of a felony with intent to influence government policy by intimidation or coercion or with the intent to affect the operation of any unit of government.
Kansas Assistant Attorney General Jessica Domme requested that the judge deny the defendant’s motion.
Burr noted that the Kansas statute defining terrorism includes multiple components that do not necessarily comport with the standard perception of terrorism when taking into consideration incidents such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing.
“While the wording of the last two sections of that statute do not imply specifically with that classic thinking insofar as terrorism is concerned, they set out what the Legislature in the state of Kansas deems as terrorism, and two of those were used in this case,” Burr said.
While the jury did not find Nichols guilty on a first terrorism count based on the commission of a felony with intent to influence government policy by intimidation or coercion, the jury did find him guilty on a second count of terrorism based on his intent to affect any unit of government.
Burr noted that evidence at trial indicated that a multitude of law enforcement agencies in southwest Kansas were entangled in the kidnapping incident, and that those agencies were “disrupted and changed their procedure and so forth in trying to deal with the situation. The Legislature has deemed that terrorism.”
Burr thus denied McConnell’s motion to dismiss the terrorism charge.
McConnell also motioned for a durational departure on sentencing for the terrorism charge.
“What we’re asking the court to do is, that we don’t feel like a life sentence in this case is appropriate or justified, as Judge Wurst testified to,” McConnell said. “We’re asking this court to sentence Jason to… the remaining counts of kidnapping and the lesser offenses.”
Domme used a previous felony murder case to articulate to Burr that the court would not have authority to depart from the sentencing guidelines requiring a life sentence for a certain set of crimes, including terrorism, and that any decision to do so would be illegal.
“The state believes the judge (Wurst) is agreeing to mercy for the defendant out of a backbone of fear, the fear that he experienced for over five hours when the defendant invaded the sanctity of his home, the fear that he had as the defendant pointed a gun at him, the fear he had that he was going to die, and the fear he had when he thought, as he testified at trial, that he would not be there to walk his daughter down the aisle,” Domme said.
Domme insinuated that Wurst was willing to tell the defendant what he wanted to hear because he “is concerned” what the defendant might do “if and when he comes out of prison.”
Domme went on to argue that Judge Wurst and his wife, Rhonda Wurst, who was also held captive for a lesser period of time, were not the only victims in the incident.
“The crime of terrorism is an act against our government, and that is why it is set aside from the other statutes,” Domme said.
She explained that the kidnapping, criminal restraint, aggravated burglary and criminal threat counts were committed directly against Judge Wurst and his wife, but that the terrorism charge affected the neighborhood where Wurst lives, the community of Garden City, and law enforcement agencies that include the Garden City Police Department, Finney County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Dodge City Police Department — all of whom assembled outside of Wurst’s home at the time of the kidnapping.
Domme added that the crime also affected the 25th Judicial District “when [Nichols] selected its chief judge to be his mechanism of terror.”
She also argued that the kidnapping affected the Kansas Department of Revenue and its secretary, who temporarily halted certain operations to address the situation.
In a statement to the court, Nichols said, “Your honor, I am truly sorry for my actions on that day and I am willing and enthusiastic about accepting responsibility for my actions.”
Burr said the case is different than any case he has overseen in almost 40 years. He explained that while there is no question as to what took place on the day of Wurst’s kidnapping — two videos of the incident were submitted as evidence and no testimony was in contradiction of another — Nichols' general intent was in dispute.
“… Mr. Nichols became so obsessed and frustrated with [the KDR] he decided to pick up a fairly large-caliber weapon and try and take care of it by taking hostage a person… who was at best on the very fringes of this entire thing,” Burr said.
Burr said that while Nichols’ actions do not seem to warrant a life sentence “in some ways,” and that he had strongly considered a durational departure that would have significantly reduced Nichols’ sentence to a total of approximately 20 years in prison, the instructions of state statute require a life sentence.
Nichols retains the right to appeal the sentencing. He was given 473 days of jail-time credit for time already spent in custody.
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org