Dozens of Kansas criminal cases up in the air due to unique state law and pandemic

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JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. — Two weeks after the Johnson County District Attorney charged a man in Westwood’s only murder, the case is in jeopardy. 

Eugene Keltner is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Ray Ninemire 17 years ago. Ninemire worked at the Apple Market in Westwood when he was shot during a botched robbery. 

The reason why Keltner’s trial, and dozens of others, might not proceed as scheduled has nothing to do with the cases themselves, but instead with the pandemic and a unique Kansas law.

It’s called “Statutory Speedy Trial,” and it’s an extension of an individual’s 6th Amendment rights. Due to the pandemic, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said the court system is anything but speedy.

In March, Johnson County was working on 90 trials for various levels of crimes. But the pandemic got in the way and put the court system on pause. Now, new cases are piling up on top of the old ones.

“For about half the year, our criminal justice system has not been able to get most of the job done to get justice,” Howe said.

Howe said in Kansas, according to the statutory speedy trial law, a person has to be brought to trial no later than 150 days after they’re arraigned. 

“Typically, that doesn’t create problems in our state, but this year of 2020 with COVID-19 and courts being basically shut down for like a six-month period, it’s created a huge strain on the criminal justice system in Kansas,” Howe said.

The state put a stop to the judicial clock with Gov. Laura Kelly’s State of Emergency order. This order is set to expire on Sept. 15. Howe, Wyandotte County’s District Attorney Mark Dupree and other neighboring district attorneys are asking for the order to be extended.

“This is beyond politics and people’s positions on masks and stay-at-home orders, but instead this is far more important and deals with public safety,” Howe said.

Howe said this doesn’t necessarily mean each person accused of a crime waiting for trial could go free, but it would hinder the state’s ability to try cases properly.

“Give us some additional time so we can get rid of this backlog and get back to doing business,” Howe said.

Kelly said extending the order is essential, but the decision is ultimately up to the state’s finance committee. 

Howe said they have 14 murder trials waiting to go right now. He said murder cases will take priority, and with an extension, they will be able to give them the time and focus they deserve.

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