Justice: Why now on Hard 50 appeal?
TOPEKA (AP) — A Kansas Supreme Court justice asked Tuesday if there was a need to rule now on whether changes to the state's 'Hard 50' prison sentence should apply retroactively, or whether a ruling could wait.
At issue was the appeal of a first-degree murder conviction and sentence of a Johnson County man in the death of a 19-year-old woman in 2009. Dustin B. Hilt was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years. However, the status of that sentence was thrown into question by a June ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court over how such sentences are imposed.
The high court ruled that such sentences are unconstitutional when they are imposed by judges and not by juries. A judge sentenced Hilt.
Joanna Labastida, a public defender representing Hilt, had raised several issues in filing Hilt's appeal, including evidence presented at trial, the dismissal of a juror and statements made in closing arguments. But the justices specifically asked Labastida and Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe to prepare additional arguments related to the "Hard 50" and focused the bulk of Tuesday's hearing on the subject.
State legislators held a two-day special session in September to change Kansas' sentencing procedure to adhere to the Supreme Court ruling. The new law specifically says it would apply to cases still at trial or on appeal.
However, Justice Dan Biles and others asked Tuesday what the rush was for making a determination about whether the legislative fix could be applied retroactively.
"Why do we have to decide this now?" Biles asked. "We kind of have 25 years to figure this out for this guy."
If the sentencing law cannot be applied retroactively, Hilt and others with the "Hard 50" sentence would remain in prison for a minimum of 25 years before being eligible for parole. They could also be ordered to face new sentencing or a new trial, depending on other issues raised in their appeals. The justices gave no indication of how quickly they would rule.
Howe said the court needed to rule on the law to provide guidance to lower courts and allow pending cases that haven't completed their sentencing to proceed.
"I think the court recognizes that there are number of cases that are pending," said Howe, who assisted legislators and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt in drafting the language of the law passed in September.
Schmidt's office estimated there were 45 cases that would be affected by the new law and argued that the changes to the statutes were procedural, not substantive changes that merited lesser sentences.
Howe said it would be more judicially efficient for the justices to decide now on the "Hard 50" rather than just Hilt's conviction or other cases, so that appeals "wouldn't bounce back and forth" between district court and the Supreme Court.
Labastida said Hilt should not be subject to the "Hard 50" because the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling effectively rendered the state's law at the time he was sentenced unconstitutional, regardless of any changes legislators made after the fact. Therefore, she argued, the most that he could face would be life without parole for 25 years.
"There was no valid way to sentence him to the 'Hard 50'," she said.
Labastida also sought that Hilt deserved a new trial and sentencing based on conduct during the trial, including trial Judge Franklin Davis allowing Howe to use language during closing arguments to describe the killing as similar to a scene from the movie "Goodfellas."
Evidence during the trial showed that Hilt's victim, Keighley Ann Alyea, was beaten by Hilt and two other men and placed in the trunk of a car and believed to be dead. While they were driving, Alyea pounded on the trunk lid and disconnected wires to tail lights. The men heard the sounds and stopped the car, this time stabbing her multiple times before dumping her body in a field in western Missouri.
During his closing arguments, Howe described a similar scene from the movie where mob characters killed one of their rivals after hearing sounds from the trunk while driving to dispose of the body.