Pandemic creating problems for Kansas judicial system

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OLATHE, Kan. — A unique law is putting pressure on district attorneys and the families of victims in Kansas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of them is the family of Ben Workman. An Overland Park teen murdered in January of 2019.

It’s called statutory speedy trial, and it’s an extension of your sixth amendment rights in the state of Kansas. Johnson County’s District Attorney, Steve Howe, is feeling the pressure.

“It could really impact our ability to get cases tried and make sure the dangerous criminals don’t walk free,” Howe said.

He says once a defendant is arraigned for trial the state has 150 to 180 days to start that trial. If that time extends their rights could be violated, and the trial or charges could be thrown out.

When Governor Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency, it stopped the clock on pending cases, but the order expires on September 15.

“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.

A strain that could have ripple effects on cases like Workman’s. His mother, Amy Workman, is scared about what this means for her son’s case.

“My heart is broken, and this doesn’t seem fair,” Workman said.

Workman was murdered in his Overland Park apartment in January of 2019. Alan Hicks and Raymond Cherry were charged with first-degree murder in the case, along with a now 19-year-old girl who is still in the juvenile court system.

“That is one of those cases that’s just been sitting there, and the individuals trying to get those cases to trial,” Howe said.

More than a year ago, she was released from jail by Judge Thomas Foster to give birth to her now one-year-old child. According to the teen’s lawyer she was then placed on house arrest, allowed to work in the community, and recently had her ankle monitor removed.

She is still charged with first-degree murder awaiting a hearing to have her case moved to the adult court system. Her lawyer says the pandemic is delaying their ability to schedule the hearing.

All three of the defendants are still awaiting a formal arraignment before trial. Hicks & Cherry’s trial was originally scheduled for this October, but Howe says this will be pushed back.

“They all need to be behind bars,” Workman said. “They all three are charged with murder one. That’s a serious crime.”

More than 90 trials were in process when the pandemic started. Howe says two were set to begin that week. Since then they haven’t stopped charging cases which means there is a six-month backup. He’s asking the state to extend the order and give them the time their cases deserve.

Howe says if the order isn’t extended murder cases will take priority and is worried they won’t have the ability to defend cases to their standard.

“It just angers me because my son deserves justice,” Workman said. “My son’s life mattered. My son’s life mattered.”

The state of emergency in Kansas is supported by Kelly. However, the decision is up to the state finance committee. On Thursday, Kelly wrote a letter to the committee asking for the extension and highlighting the issues in the court system.

“As you have heard from prosecutors across Kansas, our criminal justice system requires emergency flexibility to deal with the challenges of holding jury trials and speedy trial rules. If the state of disaster emergency expires, our prosecutors will be forced to dismiss charges against criminal defendants accused of serious violent crimes if they cannot try those cases before February. These are just some of the consequences that will follow if the state of disaster emergency is allowed to lapse.”

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