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Call For Special Legislative Session Draws Support And Questions

Stephen Koranda

In 2005, 17-year-old Robert Haberlein and two other people entered a Dollar General store in Bonner Springs. It was late in the day and only one person, 44-year-old Robin Bell, was working in the store. The three overpowered Bell and took her into the back of the store, forcing her to open the safe. They beat her before shooting and killing her.

Jerome Gorman is the district attorney for Wyandotte County.

“They tortured Robin Bell," he said. "They beat her; they stabbed her. At one point they jabbed the leg of a ladder through her eye.”

Haberlein and another man were given hard 50 sentences and additional time for other charges. They’ve appealed, but if their sentences stand they would be elderly men if they’re ever released from prison alive.

Gorman and other members of law enforcement say crimes like these deserve life without the possibility of parole for 50 years. He says this matters to victims’ families.

“They’re astonished that these people that have committed the worst crimes that we have on the books in Kansas could get out in possibly 25 years," he said. "That’s hard for a victim’s family to take.”

The governor and others have said fixing the hard 50 sentence for heinous crimes is an issue of public safety. Gov. Sam Brownback admits calling a special session is unusual, there have only been six of them since 1940. But he says this is worth it.

“My hope is that this one can be very successful, short, to the point, and get done what we need to do to make sure our citizens are safe,” he said.

The basic sentence for first degree murder in Kansas is life, with the possibility of parole after 25 years. The invalidated Kansas law said judges could increase the sentence to 50 years without parole if there were special circumstances. The Supreme Court says juries, not judges, must be able to weigh in when it comes to increased sentences like that.

Brownback says waiting makes the problem worse.

“You’ve got a series of people that are being prosecuted right now that will slip through without the option of a hard 50 if we don’t do this,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced we need to have a special session right now.

Some defense attorneys say that just because a murderer could have the possibility of parole after 25 years, that doesn’t mean they would get it. And calling the special session brings up other issues.

The governor has yet to name a nominee for an open seat in the state appeals court. The deadline to do so is less than a week before the special session, when senators will have to consider the nomination.

Anthony Hensley, from Topeka, is the Senate’s top Democrat.

“I’ve got some real concerns that if the governor waits until that deadline, that literally will not give us enough time to properly vet or look into the background and the qualifications of the appointment,” he said.

This is the first appointment under a new system where the governor gets to choose appeals court nominees, who then must be confirmed by the Senate. The state Constitution will require lawmakers to consider any waiting nominations during their special session.

Hensley believes calling the session so soon was done to usher the nominee through quickly.

“He wants to run this appointment through the Senate as quickly as possible and try to avoid as much public controversy as he can,” he said.

The governor’s spokesperson, Eileen Hawley, says Hensley is off the mark and that there’s no conspiracy theory to avoid scrutiny of the nominee.

The Senate’s vice president, Jeff King of Independence, says the nominee will get a thorough vetting and public hearings before a vote.

Gov. Brownback has set a starting and ending time for the session. He says it should last three days.