The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously concluded Wednesday a Sedgwick County man's firearms convictions shouldn't be automatically reversed because the district court judge fell asleep in front of the jury during proceedings on the first day of the trial.
The state's highest court rejected a legal interpretation by the Kansas Court of Appeals prompting an order in 2017 that Daquantrius Johnson be granted retrial because Judge Benjamin Burgess confessed to napping at the bench. Johnson gained national attention in a separate case when convicted of stealing the wedding ring off an unconscious woman's finger as she lay dying in a Taco Bell drive-thru.
Justice Caleb Stegall, who wrote the Supreme Court's opinion in the sleepy-judge case, said there was no precedent in Kansas to justify a finding of structural error simply because a judge catnapped during a trial. The issue is significant because structural errors are defects in the mechanism of a trial so egregious as to warrant immediate reversal.
Burgess admitted to the jury that he fell asleep, but he defended himself by noting no objections from attorneys were raised while he was temporarily out of commission. He assured the jury he wasn't the first judge to be overcome by heavy eyelids.
"I acknowledge myself, ladies and gentlemen, that I did nod off," Burgess said.
The Supreme Court concluded the trial judge's slumber amounted to regrettable misconduct and noted Johnson's lawyer declined to request a mistrial when given the opportunity. The justices rejected the Court of Appeals' position that a sleeping judge was the legal equivalent to a judge who had physically left the bench. By doing so, the justices blocked the lower court's attempt to broaden the definition of structural error.
"Just like a driver who feels the overwhelming physical need for sleep should immediately get off the road," Stegall wrote in the Supreme Court opinion, "a responsible judge charged with overseeing a criminal trial who feels the need for sleep, and can no longer successfully put it off, has a responsibility to call a halt to the proceedings."
The Supreme Court's opinion pointed to the fact not every dozing driver was responsible for causing a traffic crash and not every dozing judge ought to prompt automatic reversal of criminal convictions.
Johnson won't get the new trial on charges of criminal possession of a firearm, aggravated assault and felony criminal discharge of a firearm that was the preference of the Court of Appeals. He was ordered to serve 43 months in that case and remains an inmate at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.
The 2017 opinion from the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, which was a 2-1 decision, argued the napping affected the structural framework of the trial.
"Our citizens expect a fully awake trial judge," the Court of Appeals' decision said. "How can a sleepy judge supervise anything other than his or her dreams?"
In the separate criminal case, Johnson was ordered to serve 136 months in prison for taking the wedding ring off the hand of a woman who had suffered a catastrophic medical impairment while at Taco Bell that led to her death. The ring was never recovered by police.