August 21. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Trussell (No. 99,411) a murder-conspiracy case that reads like something from a TV show. In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Lee Johnson, the Court affirmed Jerry Trussell’s convictions arising out of the 1997 murder of his friend and host “Punkie” Harrod.
Jerry Trussell and his wife Tammy became friends with the Harrods (Punkie and Kelly) in the 1990s. At one point Tammy left Punkie, claiming he was abusive, though a court awarded him temporary custody of their kids. She later moved back in with him after discovering she was pregnant and the divorce was abandoned. In 1997, after some conversations between the women, Kelly started having sex with Jerry in return for his agreeing to “get rid of” her husband. Later, Jerry and Tammy were evicted from their home and moved in with the Harrods. In 1997 the Jerry, Kelly and Tammy organized a scene in which Punkie and Jerry fought and Kelly shot him in the head. His body was buried in a shallow grave.
Suspicions were aroused and police interviewed the protagonists several times without success. In 2001, Tammy began telling the police different versions of the story and in 2004 she led police to the location of the grave though no body was recovered. In 2005 Jerry Trussell was tried for 1st degree murder and conspiracy but the jury failed to reach a verdict. At a subsequent trial in 2007, Jerry was convicted. Between the first trial and the second trial the District Court reversed itself over whether to admit some un-Mirandized statements given by Jerry to police in 2001, resulting in the admission of the statements.
On appeal Trussell raised several issues, which the Court dismissed quickly.
Trussell argued that the State had not presented sufficient evidence that he had intent to have Punkie killed, but the Court rejected this noting that intent can be formed quickly and the evidence before the jury was that Trussell had had ample time to form intent since the killing was planned ahead of time.
Trussell argued that a self-defense instruction should have been given to the jury even though he had not asked for one, and indeed his theory of defense had been that he was being set up as the fall guy by Tammy and Kelly. The Court held that District Courts have no obligation to proactively instruct on every possible theory of defense, especially ones which might conflict with the defendant’s own theory.
Trussell argued that his 2001 statements ought to have remained suppressed. The Kansas Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the District Court’s reasoning on the matter. Since the statements were given voluntarily and Trussell was able to leave of his own volition at any point, the Court held that this was a non-custodial interrogation and that therefore Miranda did not apply.
Trussell objected that the Prosecutor had often used leading questions and that the District Court allowed this. In fact whenever the Defense objected to the leading questions the Court had them rephrased or dropped. However, the transcript indicated that there were unobjected-to leading questions also. The Court held that it had no jurisdiction to rule on these since the Defense had not objected at trial. The Court indicated that Prosecutorial Misconduct might have been a better argument for Trussell to have made, but he hadn’t so the matter was not considered.
Trussell objected to the Trial Court’s decision to rule one witness as a hostile witness (thus able to be asked leading questions). The Kansas Supreme Court held that the Trial Court was in the right position to make that call and that the transcript showed it had considered the matter before making its ruling and therefore upheld it.
Trussell’s life sentence (without parole for 25 years) for murder and subsequent 12 year sentence for conspiracy was affirmed.