Fifteen times in the last five years, killers convicted of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter walked out of Jackson County courtrooms with sentences of probation.
No other court jurisdiction in Missouri comes close to matching that generosity.
That’s especially true for voluntary manslaughter. Jackson County gave twice as many probation sentences for that crime as all of the state’s other circuit courts combined, The Kansas City Star learned by analyzing state data from 2009 through 2013.
Probation for those convicted of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter mirrors how Jackson County uses probation across a spectrum of violent crimes.
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Many violent criminals get probation in Jackson County despite being convicted of the worst robbery and assault crimes prosecuted here, The Star reported Sunday.
Some of them receive second, third and fourth chances before finally hearing bars slam shut because they graduated to murder or manslaughter.
Like some of the robbery and assault defendants, some of those given probation for second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter spent time in prison on the lesser charge of armed criminal action.
The idea that even killers convicted of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter could get probation appalled, but didn’t surprise, Julie Gulledge, who leads the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.
“We get so many complaints from victims,” Gulledge said. “It’s awful.”
The killers ranged in age from 15 to 65 years old. Most shot their victims or watched as an accomplice pulled the trigger.
Some of their victims were innocent bystanders, caught in the wrong place as violence exploded around them. Some knew their assailants intimately. Others died in circumstances, and for motives, that remain obscure to this day.
Judges ordered about half of the second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter defendants who received probation to serve sentences for armed criminal action. Those sentences were shorter than the minimum called for under state law for the murder or manslaughter count.
Jackson County judges, lawyers and prosecutors defended how the courts handle such cases.
Focusing on such a small group of cases obscures her office’s efforts to combat violent crime, said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.
“Judging Jackson County on 15 cases out of 15,000 is like judging the Chiefs’ season from a single play,” Baker said.
Under Missouri law, defendants convicted of first-degree, or premeditated, murder automatically receive a life sentence behind bars.
But no such rule exists for second-degree murder, for which prosecutors do not have to prove premeditation, or voluntary manslaughter, which often is used for killings committed in the heat of passion.
Probation is a legal, and occasionally appropriate, sentence for second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, said Marco Roldan, Jackson County’s presiding circuit judge.
“I do give a lot of credit to the wisdom of our legislature,” he said. “They allow us the discretion to grant probation in serious cases.”
In about half the 15 Jackson County cases, prosecutors agreed to probation as part of a plea agreement. In others, the defendants pleaded guilty with no agreement on the final sentence. In those cases, prosecutors recommended a sentence stronger than probation, which the judges did not accept.
In a handful of cases, defendants pleaded guilty knowing that the judge had agreed not to go over a predetermined “lid” of 15 or 20 years, depending on the arguments made during the sentencing hearing.
Defense lawyers win probation for their clients by relentlessly tearing into the state’s evidence, said attorney Dan Ross, who represented several of the murder and voluntary manslaughter defendants whose cases the newspaper reviewed.
And sometimes, Ross acknowledged, his clients’ best interests are served by delay, or as he described it, allowing the charges to “season for a while.” That gives him more time to attack the government’s case and allow witnesses’ memories to fade.
“I make a living off of flawed cases in Jackson County,” Ross said.
A multitude of factors go into sentencing decisions, said Kellie Wingate Campbell, former prosecutor in Lafayette County and past president of the Missouri Victim Assistance Network.
But too much probation could be an indicator of how closely the justice system listens, or doesn’t listen, to its crime victims, she said.
“It’s a red flag that warrants further review.”
A red flag for another expert is that probation even is possible for such cases.
Legislators in Jefferson City should debate whether to prohibit probation as a punishment for second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, said Dan Levey, executive director for the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children Inc.
Precedent exists for such discussions. Already, 120-day “shock time” sentences are not permitted for second-degree murder. And state law prohibits judges from granting probation to defendants convicted of forcible rape and first-degree murder.
“Probation for somebody who willfully takes someone’s life shouldn’t happen,” Levey said. “Second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter merit some prison time.”