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Kansas Senate leader has plan to toughen 'Hard 50'

12/6/2013

By JOHN HANNA

AP Political Writer

TOPEKA -- A proposal for strengthening the "Hard 50" murder sentencing law in Kansas is likely to be considered next year by legislators, with a top Senate leader promising Thursday that he'll push for the measure's passage.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce said he's drafted a bill to revise the law, which allows defendants convicted of premeditated, first-degree murder to be sentenced to serve at least 50 years in prison. The proposal from Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, comes only months after legislators had a special session to fix a flaw in the law.

Bruce said he wants to make the "Hard 50" the presumed sentence for first-degree murder, with judges allowed to give a lesser punishment at a defendant's request in some circumstances. Kansas law currently requires prosecutors to seek the Hard 50, with juries deciding whether it's warranted instead of a sentence of life in prison with parole eligibility in 25 years.

The law had said judges would decide on "Hard 50," based on the circumstances of a crime, such as whether a defendant tortured a victim or fired into a crowd. But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a Virginia case that juries, not judges, had to determine whether to impose mandatory minimum sentences, and Kansas lawmakers made the fix during a two-day session in September. Lawmakers open their regular, annual session Jan. 13.

"It makes a 50-year sentence without the possibility of parole the default position," said Bruce, an attorney and former Reno County prosecutor. "It's more secure, gives more closure to the victims."

In Kansas, the only penalties tougher than the "Hard 50" are capital punishment and life without parole, the alternative to death in a capital case and a sentence also possible for some habitual sex offenders.

Gov. Sam Brownback called legislators into special session this fall to fix the "Hard 50" law in hopes of preserving the punishment in more than 40 cases in which defendants haven't been sentenced or that are on appeal. The Kansas Supreme Court has heard one case and is considering three more next week.

"Would we want to let that run its course?" said Rep. James Todd, an Overland Park Republican and attorney who serves on the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

Todd also said he'd hesitate to change the law as Bruce proposed because it would be "shifting the burden" in criminal cases to the defendant.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org