Decision: State v. Sharp

June 19th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its decision in State v. Sharp (No. 98,389). In a 6-1 decision, written by Justice Lawton Nuss, the Court rejected Kimberly Sharp’s contention that her confession to assisting in the murder of David Owen was coerced. Consequently her felony murder and kidnapping convictions were affirmed. Justice Lee Johnson dissented, arguing that certain statements of of the interviewing officer rose to the level at which a reward was implied in return for them, thus rendering the statement coerced.

The background to this case is the murder of David Owen in Topeka in 2006. The circumstances in that case are described in the write-up of State v. Baker (No. 98, 498). Baker and a man named Charles Hollingsworth hanged Owen. Sharp was tried for felony murder and kidnapping because she had assisted in detaining Owen and had provided the rope with which he was later murdered. In addition, she had burned some of his belongings afterwards.

The core of her appeal revolved around the fact that during a police interview the interviewing officer had said, when asked if Sharp was going to jail:

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You are [only] a witness to this thing as long as you do not do something dumb and jam yourself.”

and later,

“Just don’t tell me no if I ask you something.”

Sharp argued that this constituted a promise not to prosecute her for the murder and that she was then convicted because of evidence she gave up after these statements were made, which implicated her in providing the rope, telling her associates not to murder Owen “here” (as opposed to not at all) as well as her involvement in covering up the crime.

In addition, Sharp has two young children. When it emerged that the children were in another homeless camp, the detectives pressed Sharp for more information, promising to reunite her with them (which they did). Sharp argued that the statements she made at this point were therefore made in order to get to see her children.

The Kansas Supreme Court rejected both arguments. It found that the motivation of the officers surrounding the children was to speedily rescue them from where they were left (in the presence of a convicted sex offender no less) and that this was not an attempt t coerce information out of Sharp. It also found that the statements during the interview were not prejudicial – the police admitted that at the time they did not expect Sharp to be charged with murder. However, promises of immunity (even if these statements rose to that level, which the court found they did not), are not absolute. The Court noted that immunity has been rescinded in circumstances where it is discovered that the person offered immunity for testimony turns out to be the actual killer. Since Sharp’s statements directly implicated her in Felony Murder (and she had been Mirandized and had waived counsel) her convictions were sound. The Court examined the context of the second remark and found it to be a caution not to lie, rather than a demand that Sharp assent to whatever the police officer suggested.

Justice Johnson dissented. He would have found the statements prejudicial. He argued that the first statement of the detective constituted a promise which in conjunction with the admonition not to say ‘no’ deprived the statement of its nature as a product of Sharp’s free and independent will. He was also concerned with the matter of locating Sharp’s children. He argued that given a parent’s natural concern for their children the statements of police surrounding this issue would have been coersive or inducive upon Sharp’s testimony.

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