Kansas Supreme Court justices on Tuesday will hear the first appeal of a “Hard 50” prison sentence since lawmakers in September changed the way the sentence is imposed.
The case involves Dustin B. Hilt, who was convicted in 2010 of first-degree murder for the 2009 death of a Johnson County woman. Hilt was among three defendants convicted in the killing of 18-year-old Keighley Ann Alyea.
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Justices will be asked to decide if the changes made to the state’s Hard 50 law should be applied to Hilt’s case or if the sentence should be vacated and sent back for determination by a jury, as Hilt’s attorney, Joanna Labistida, argued in briefs filed ahead of the hearing.
A judge sentenced Hilt to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years. However, legislators altered that process in a two-day special session after a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Virginia case. The justices ruled that only juries can impose such departures in prison sentences.
The Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt argues that legislators made only a procedural change by having juries decide on Hard 50 sentences, so all sentences should be applied retroactively.
If the court rules the changes can’t be applied retroactively, Hard 50 sentences would be reduced to 25 years to life. It is unclear how quickly the Kansas Supreme Court will rule on the Hilt appeal, which could have bearing on the remaining Hard 50 sentences on appeal.
Another case that involves the Hard 50 is that of Scott Roeder. He was convicted for the May 2009 shooting death of physician George Tiller, who was one of a few U.S. physicians known to perform abortions in the last weeks of pregnancy. Tiller was gunned down in the foyer of the Wichita church he attended.
In Kansas, the only penalties tougher than the Hard 50 are capital punishment and life without parole, with the latter being an alternative to death in a capital case and a sentence also possible for some habitual sex offenders.