Kansas courts twice reversed convictions won by Jacqie Spradling. This week will decide her future.
For Eileen Umbehr and Wendy Ewing, justice against Jacqie Spradling cannot come soon enough.
The two women, who have made or are connected to complaints against Spradling, say the former Shawnee County prosecutor should face discipline — including disbarment and potential criminal charges — for her role and “win-at-all-costs” mentality in obtaining convictions against Dana Chandler and Wendy’s son Jacob Ewing.
Now, years after those complaints, a three-attorney panel from the Kansas Board for Disciple of Attorneys will hold a weeklong hearing starting Monday to determine if Spradling’s conduct was severe enough to merit formal discipline.
Spradling, now the Bourbon County attorney and an assistant county attorney in Allen County, did not return a message left for her Thursday afternoon at her Fort Scott office. Neither did LJ Leatherman, a Topeka attorney who is representing Spradling in the hearing.
What is Spradling accused of doing?
Spradling is alleged to have acted improperly, lied to the court and broken Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct — including rules on competence, meritorious claims and contentions, candor toward the tribunal, fairness to the opposing party and counsel, disciplinary matter and misconduct.
That misconduct is specifically alleged to have happened in cases against Dana Chandler, who in 2012 was convicted of the 2002 murder of her ex-husband Mike Sisco and his fiancée Karen Harkness, and Jacob Ewing, a Holton man who in 2016 was convicted of rape and sodomy of two women, in addition to other offenses.
In the Chandler case
Spradling is accused of falsely leading a jury to believe Chandler had violated a protection order that Sisco had allegedly obtained. No abuse order, which was a crucial part of Spradling’s case of circumstantial evidence against Chandler, was ever found to have existed, and no physical evidence could connect Chandler, who lived in Denver at the time, to the scene of the crime.
Spradling is also accused of misstating evidence in her opening and closing arguments in that case to say Chandler had known Sisco and Harkness were engaged during a five-minute phone interview, a key inference that Spradling used to show Chandler’s motives to allegedly kill the couple. During the trial, Spradling presented no evidence that the engagement was ever brought up in that phone call.
Keen Umbehr, Elaine’s husband and an attorney who previously helped Chandler with legal research as she filed motions representing herself legally, filed a complaint against Spradling in 2016 accusing her of misconduct in lying about the protection order initially and in subsequent questioning about its existence. The Kansas Supreme Court, in reviewing Chandler’s appeals, overturned Chandler’s two murder convictions and remanded the case to the Shawnee County District Court in 2018, where Chandler is facing a do-over trial in 2021 for the same offenses.
But in making its decision, the Kansas Supreme Court found that Spradling’s prosecution of Chandler “unfortunately illustrates how a desire to win can eclipse the state’s responsibility to safeguard the fundamental constitutional right to a fair trial owed to any defendant facing criminal prosecution in a Kansas courtroom.”
Along with Chandler, the Umbehrs have vigorously maintained Chandler’s innocence, and Umbehr said the conduct outlined in the Supreme Court decision was “just the tip of the iceburg,” and that uncovering the extent of Spradling’s deceptions would be like untangling Christmas lights.
“You want to talk about smart people? Jacqie Spradling,” Umbehr said. “You have to be really smart to concoct the convoluted deceptions that she put forth in the Dana Chandler trial.”
In the Ewing case
While Ewing cleared charges of two sex crimes against the underage girl in April 2017, jury trials in June of that year found him guilty of raping and sodomizing one woman in 2016 and another in 2014, in addition to being found guilty of other drug and alcohol charges. Ewing pleaded guilty to a separate charge of a January 2014 attempted rape and no contest to a single charge of child exploitation of an underage girl, with an ultimate sentence time of more than 30 years in prison.
But after Ewing in August 2018 appealed the June 2017 convictions, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled Spradling had misled the jury by making comments unsupported by evidence during closing arguments, in addition to six other errors leading up to the trial.
Spradling had claimed that Ewing abused someone with autism, which wasn’t supported by evidence and “improperly inflamed the passions and prejudices of the jury by painting Ewing as a bad person who preyed on especially vulnerable women,” the appeals court wrote.
Additionally, the appeals court ruled that the Jackson County District Court erred in allowing prosecutors to submit a disc of “profoundly disturbing (pornographic) image” as evidence, which was compounded after Spradling without any basis alleged Ewing had viewed the images.
Like in Chandler’s case, the Court of Appeals remanded Ewing’s case to district court, and both defendants face new trials for the alleged offenses.
“If she would have been disciplined correctly for the Chandler case, she never would have had the opportunity to lie during Jacob’s case,” said Wendy Ewing, who filed a disciplinary complaint against Spradling in 2018. “The court system has to do better, and the disciplinary office needs to be held responsible for the delay.
“It’s just unacceptable all the way around,” she added. “Someone should not be able to practice if they have a disciplinary action against them. They should be on probation at the least, but to practice without any kind of repercussions — it’s just not right.”
Why has the hearing taken so long to happen?
Stan Hazlett, disciplinary administrator for Kansas, outlined a long journey for the complaints to finally get a hearing. After the initial complaint from the Chandler case was filed in July 2016, Hazlett said his office decided to wait until the Kansas Supreme Court more definitively settled a pending appeal of the case, which it did in 2018.
After that Supreme Court ruling, which found prosecutorial misconduct on Spradling’s part, Hazlett said the office submitted the Chandler complaint to its review committee in November 2018 to determine if enough probable cause existed to go forth with a hearing.
That committee did find probably cause and set a hearing for October 2019, later continued to March 2020 to allow Spradling’s attorney enough time to review “a massive amount of evidence,” especially after the formal complaint was amended to include the Ewing complaint.
“Then the pandemic hit, and since that time, we’ve been trying to figure out how to have a pandemic safely, and that’s what we hope to do starting next Monday,” Hazlett said.
Hazlett said Spradling’s case has presented a unique set of challenges, as outlined by the timeline, and that the years-long wait for the complaints to lead to hearings was not unusual considering the scope of the hearing.
“This is a massive case,” he said. “There are thousands of pages of material to review, and no doubt, it took Ms. Spradling’s attorney a long time to review that stuff.”
Hazlett’s deputies, Matthew Vogelsberg and Gary C. West, are representing the disciplinary office in the hearing.
How can I watch the hearing?
Technically, you can’t, at least not directly.
In keeping with the Shawnee County Health Department’s emergency order limiting mass gatherings to 10 people, the hearing will be limited to essential participants, including the three-person panel, its counsel, the opposing parties, the court reporter and witnesses, with in-person observers barred from the meeting.
However, to accommodate other observers, witnesses and members of the media, the hearing will be broadcast via Zoom, under strict rules for observation. For one, access to the hearing must be requested from the panel’s counsel, and any observers have to agree to comply with orders prohibiting recording of any kind.
It’s a move that the complainants say is depriving them of the chance to adequately observe the hearing process.
“I think she should see my face,” said Wendy Ewing, who had hoped to attend the hearing in person. “She sent my son away for 34 years, and I was the one who filed the complaint. She should know I filed the complaint and she should have to watch me the whole entire time. I know that’s horrible, but that’s how that is.”
What happens after the hearing?
The hearing panel, made up of two attorneys from the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys and one at-large attorney, will review the evidence and testimony brought up in the hearing and make a determination on whether Spradling did in fact engage in prosecutorial misconduct and error.
If that’s the case, the panel would be able to choose to either admonish Spradling, or if they find the conduct was more serious, submit a formal report to the Kansas Supreme Court recommending discipline.
The Supreme Court itself would have various options in that case, including public censure, conditional probation, license suspension for a definite or indefinite amount of time or even disbarment.
But disbarment, the complainants against Spradling said, might not be enough discipline against the former Shawnee County prosecutor, who they claim engaged in egregious enough conduct that could be labeled criminal.
“I feel like Jacqie Spradling should be held accountable for misleading the public, and misleading the jurors,” Wendy Ewing said. “If she is held accountable for it, I believe that other attorneys will start being a little more cautious of their actions in the courtroom.”
Umbehr wants Spradling indicted.
“She should be disbarred and indicted,” Umbehr said. “It is not enough for her to lose her license. It’s criminal what she did. Subornation of perjury is a felony and this woman is still practicing law?”