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This Kansas prosecutor keeps getting away with misconduct. Will she ever be punished?

By Melinda Henneberger Updated December 06, 2020 06:24 PM

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When I saw longtime Kansas prosecutor Jacqie Spradling in action at Jacob Ewing’s April 2017 trial, on charges he’d violated a seventh grader when he was 19, I was a lot more impressed by her than by the jury, which quickly found its town’s star athlete not guilty.

Good for Spradling for being so fierce, I thought, when it had taken some doing to even seat a jury in Holton, population 3,248.

“If she steps out and looks like she’s 18 years old, that’s on her,’’ one prospective juror had said of the 13-year-old victim. Another didn’t see how he could find this young man guilty when the girl’s daddy so clearly should have kept better track of her. Ewing had been charged with the rape or attempted rape of six young women in all, and I did not think they were lying. Still don’t.TOP ARTICLESAs deaths and hospitalizations rise in Kansas, state leaders urge mask usage, mandates

At Ewing’s second trial, in June of that year, Spradling showed the jury dozens of clips of the violent porn she said he had spent four hours watching on his phone on the average day, later acting out that violence on his victims. She told jurors how he preyed on those too vulnerable — one had autism, she said — to fight or be believed. That time, he was found guilty. Even the judge in the case said Ewing could be seen as, well, an asshole. Indeed, sir.

The sex crimes and domestic violence that still too often get an underreaction from police and prosecutors have been a major focus of Spradling’s work, which is something we have in common. And that there is a little Kathy Bates, whom she resembles, in her performance in court certainly makes her compelling to watch. Spradling gets convictions, and convictions get district attorneys reelected.

Only, two of those guilty verdicts, Ewing’s in June of 2017 and the 2012 conviction of Dana Chandler in the Shawnee County murder of Chandler’s ex-husband and his girlfriend, have now been reversed on court findings that Spradling, in non-legal language, lied and cheated her way to those wins. Neither Chandler nor Ewing got a fair trial as a result, the courts said.

In a third case, involving the conviction of Richard Snow in a string of Johnson County golf shop burglaries, Spradling was reprimanded way back in 2006 for making courtroom comments the Supreme Court of Kansas found “insulting, demeaning and unprofessional.”

In a fourth, the 2012 Topeka murder conviction of Stephen Macomber, the Kansas Court of Appeals found that Spradling twice made improper statements about evidence. And in a fifth matter, in 2015, the Kansas Supreme Court’s disciplinary office informally admonished Spradling for issuing a subpoena without notifying that person’s attorney.

Yet after all this, Spradling is still working as a prosecutor in both Bourbon County in southeast Kansas and neighboring Allen County.

Because you can’t ever get the right result the wrong way, her repeated misconduct, and that of other cowboy prosecutors, is both an indictment of and an affront to the justice system to which she’s devoted almost 30 years, in four different Kansas counties.

Disciplinary hearing in Topeka; ‘false statements’

In her 2016 resignation letter from the Shawnee County prosecutor’s office, Spradling wrote that she’d been honored to walk alongside law enforcement and “hold violent offenders in this community accountable for their actions.”

But our system doesn’t work unless prosecutors, too, are held accountable for their actions, and they hardly ever are.

For the next week, starting on Monday, Spradling will finally have a full, formal disciplinary hearing in Topeka, before the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys. And for the first time in all these years, she will be fighting to keep her law license. A panel of three lawyers will review whether she violated multiple rules of professional conduct in the Ewing and Chandler cases. Then the Kansas Supreme Court will make the final call.

The Kansas Court of Appeals found last year that at Ewing’s June 2017 jury trial, Spradling misstated what the DNA evidence showed.

She never proved, the court said, that Ewing had even seen the 29 violent porn clips Spradling showed the jury. Nor did she show the relevance of those clips to the case against him. And it was out of nowhere, the decision said, that she’d claimed one of Ewing’s alleged victims has autism.

In Spradling’s prosecution of Chandler in the 2002 murder of her ex-husband, Mike Sisco, and his girlfriend, Karen Harkness, the Kansas Supreme Court unanimously found that Spradling’s “false statements” about a “made-up protection from abuse order” that Chandler’s ex-husband had never actually obtained “helped the State fill in the blanks to its narrative.”

She “traded on an untrue statement about a protection from abuse order” and “used an untruth about judicial approval to stack the deck” against Chandler.

“Those misstatements and misdirection cause even greater concern on closer consideration,” the decision said. “For example, the record strongly suggests the prosecutor knew that there was no protection from abuse order…before asking the detective about it on the stand.”

When called on her “made-up” protection order in a preliminary disciplinary hearing, Spradling kept feigning confusion. She also brazenly pretended, both in court and in the hearing, to have known what Chandler and her ex talked about on the phone shortly before his death, when she could not have and didn’t. Again, because she’s so ditzy, she just can’t keep track of who told her what when? She’s too smart for that, but repeatedly denies mistakes, and only when that doesn’t work says oops.

Spradling did not respond to email and phone messages, and former colleagues weren’t willing to speak on the record, either. Officially, no one seems to know her.

Real ‘law and order’ for problem prosecutors

The blind eye we turn to this kind of misbehavior in our name is why Terra Morehead, whom a judge found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct by threatening a witness and only belatedly disclosing evidence in a drug case, is still a federal prosecutor in Kansas. She was also accused of misconduct in her prosecution of Lamonte McIntyre for a 1994 double murder he did not commit, but for which he served 23 years in prison. McIntyre’s record was only expunged earlier this year.

It’s why former St. Louis prosecutor Dan Diemer, whom a court found to have suppressed exculpatory evidence and coached a witness to lie on the stand in his 1995 murder case against Larry Callanan, still has a law license in Missouri. Callanan was freed this summer.

It’s why Amy McGowan worked as a prosecutor in Douglas County right up until her retirement last year, despite failing to turn over exculpatory evidence against Ricky Kidd, who also spent 23 years in prison for two 1996 murders he did not commit. Kidd was exonerated last year.

In 2013, a court found that McGowan had made improper comments that prejudiced the jury during closing arguments in five different cases between 2007 and 2009. When her disciplinary hearing finally started in Missouri in October, it was a little late. Those proceedings are still going on.

It’s also why Ed Brancart, whom a judge found to have suborned perjury as a Wyandotte County prosecutor in his murder case against Olin “Pete” Coones, still has his big job as a fraud prosecutor in the Kansas attorney general’s office. Coones was freed last month after serving 12 years for a 2008 Kansas City, Kansas, murder he did not commit.

These are only the recent local instances of problem prosecutors who just keep finding new and sometimes better jobs, just as abusive priests used to do.

After Spradling was fired from the Johnson County DA’s office in 2007, she accused Phill Kline of letting her go in retaliation for her complaints about sex discrimination in the office. She also said Kline had bugged her office after she complained, which he denied along with the discrimination charge, saying he really fired her because she wouldn’t follow policy. The state later paid her $350,000 to settle the suit.

Why, you have to wonder, has it taken so long for the system to hold Spradling to account? The far less powerful court reporter who merely expressed a view on Facebook about the Chandler case was quickly sanctioned. Even the judge who referred to Ewing as an asshole was censured.

If we really want wrongdoers punished and wrongdoing deterred, then prosecutors have to pay a price for withholding and misstating the meaning of evidence and suborning perjury. Whom could it possibly help to have innocent lives stolen, and convictions of the guilty overturned?

A real “law and order” state legislature would put a stop to this behavior by making it illegal to withhold evidence. Real “law and order” officials would fire those employees whose wrongdoing we otherwise have to assume they approve.

And the current disciplinary system works so slowly, inefficiently and selectively that it needs a complete overhaul.

Almost 30 years ago, Spradling sued her own mother in an effort to keep her from seeing her children, despite what the court called “mutual affection between the children and their grandmother.” Though Spradling had moved in with her mom on her way out of an abusive first marriage, she also accused her mother, who has since died, of having abused her physically and emotionally throughout her life.

She offered no examples, the court said, noting that Spradling also said she couldn’t remember anything that had happened to her before she was 12 years old.

Prosecutors are human, with their own agendas and motivations and issues. But to put them above the law puts the law itself at risk, and with confidence in the system at a well-deserved low, we can’t afford to let that stand.


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The misconduct of Kansas prosecutors like Jacqie Spradling undermines confidence in the justice system. Photo illustration

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