It has been almost 15 years since a stream of crimson liquid, oozing from a metal barrel, revealed a serial killer’s grisly handiwork.
The discovery of a woman’s body stuffed inside that barrel kicked off one of the biggest police investigations ever in the Kansas City area. It led to eight murder convictions across two states and a Kansas death sentence for an Olathe grandfather named John E. Robinson Sr.
Robinson’s trial for three killings, the longest criminal prosecution in Kansas history, has produced an equally epic and complicated appeal. On Tuesday, it finally will be argued in front of the Kansas Supreme Court, 12 years after lawyers first filed the notice of appeal.
Like the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors before them, the court’s justices face a daunting task.
“The state of Kansas has never seen a prosecution of this scale and magnitude,” Robinson’s attorneys wrote in a 2002 pretrial motion.
They summed up the case this way: “The extraordinary allegations … are unprecedented in Kansas history in the nature of the charges, the technical nature of the evidence, the span of time covered in the allegations, the extent of media coverage, and the volume of evidence generated by multiple federal, state and local jurisdictions that committed massive and unprecedented resources to the investigation.”
The appeal has generated what is believed to be another record: Attorneys for the state and defense have combined to file more than 800 pages of written legal arguments in advance of Tuesday’s hearing. The trial transcript runs more than 12,000 pages.
Robinson’s attorneys have raised 101 issues on appeal, ranging from how police secretly took bags of trash from outside his house, to how jurors were chosen and instructed, to how the trial judge handled a juror bringing a Bible into the jury room during deliberations.
The defense contends that a multitude of errors violated Robinson’s constitutional rights and warrant throwing out his conviction and sentence.
Attorneys for the state counter that Robinson received a fair trial and that any errors did not rise to the level requiring a reversal.
The case first made headlines in June 2000 after authorities found two women’s bodies stuffed into barrels on property Robinson owned in Linn County, Kan.
Investigators later discovered other barrels, containing three more victims, in a Raymore storage locker Robinson had rented.
The investigation also led detectives to suburban Chicago, where they discovered that the adopted teenage daughter of Robinson’s brother was in reality the child of a Kansas City woman who disappeared in 1985 with her newborn daughter. Robinson was the last person seen with them.
The sadomasochistic lifestyles of Robinson and some of his victims provided salacious details for national and international news organizations that reported on the case.
Several of the women had moved from other parts of the country to be Robinson’s sex slaves.
Prosecutors painted Robinson as a serial philanderer who maintained the quiet facade of a devoted family man. His criminal history of financial crimes belied the extreme violence he perpetrated against his victims.
Ultimately, he would be convicted of eight murders, including those of three women who disappeared in the 1980s and whose bodies never have been found. One was Lisa Stasi, the mother whose daughter was raised by Robinson’s brother and sister-in-law after Robinson engineered a sham adoption.
Five of those convictions were in Cass County, where Robinson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
His Johnson County trial is the subject of Tuesday’s appellate arguments.
Jury selection alone took three weeks.
“It was 103 degrees outside when we started jury selection,” recalled Sean O’Brien, one of Robinson’s defense attorneys who now teaches law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “And there was snow on the ground when the verdict came in.”
After another three weeks of trial testimony, jurors found Robinson guilty of capital and first-degree murder and unanimously agreed that he receive a death sentence.
Robinson, now 71, is the only person sentenced to death in Johnson County since Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994.
Several factors have contributed to the delay between trial and an appeal hearing.
Both the defense and state requested additional time to research and address the myriad legal issues. The case was put on hold for a time during a challenge to the Kansas death penalty law that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition, the Kansas Supreme Court has been careful to consider death penalty appeals only one or two at a time, and it took up the appeal of Wichita brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr before setting Robinson’s case for argument, said Joseph Luby, one of the lawyers handling Robinson’s appeal.
In scope and complexity, only the Carr brothers case has come close to equaling that of Robinson, court officials said.
Assistant Johnson County District Attorney Steve Obermeier, who has handled Johnson County’s criminal appeals for nearly two decades, will argue part of the case for the state.
“Those are the longest briefs I’ve ever been involved in,” Obermeier said.
Luby, an attorney with the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic in Kansas City, was part of Robinson’s defense team at trial.
“There were a broad set of facts and a broad set of evidence,” he said. “That necessarily implicates a broad set of legal questions.”
Though each side has been allotted one hour to make its oral presentation Tuesday, the court often engages attorneys in questioning that could extend the time, Luby said.
“This court is known for exercising great care in death penalty cases,” Luby said. “In a death penalty case, that’s certainly what everybody wants.”
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John E. Robinson Sr. was convicted of killing eight women: Suzette Trouten, 27, and Izabela Lewicka, 21, were found in barrels on his Linn County, Kan., farm property; Beverly Bonner, 49, Sheila Faith, 45, and her 15-year-old daughter, Debbie Faith, were found in barrels in a Raymore storage locker; Paula Godfrey, 19, Catherine Clampitt, 27, and Lisa Stasi, 19, disappeared in the 1980s. Their bodies never have been found.