John E. Robinson Sr., the prolific serial killer from Olathe who stored the bodies of some of his victims in barrels, will remain on death row, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In a massive 415-page opinion, the court systemically rejected dozens of appellate claims stemming from Robinson’s 2002 trial in Johnson County — the longest criminal trial in Kansas history.
But the court threw out one of his two capital murder convictions as well as a first-degree murder conviction.
The court found that prosecutors at the time improperly used the murders of the same four previous victims to support each capital murder charge.
That created a double jeopardy situation in which Robinson unconstitutionally was tried twice for the same crime, the court found.
For the same reason, the court also dismissed Robinson’s first-degree murder conviction. That victim’s death was among the killings used to support the capital murder charges.
Friday’s ruling marked the first time the state’s highest court upheld a death sentence since Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994.
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe, who took office after the case was tried, said Friday he was pleased with the decision.
“This was one of the most infamous cases ever heard in Johnson County or the state of Kansas,” Howe said.
And although the ruling marked only one big step in a typically lengthy appeals process in death penalty cases, Howe said he was hopeful that the process would proceed swiftly “so justice can finally be brought for all of Robinson’s victims.”
A Johnson County jury found Robinson, now 71, guilty of capital murder in each of the deaths of two women whose bodies were found in the year 2000 stuffed inside barrels on property he owned in Linn County, Kan.
The jury also found him guilty of first-degree murder in the death of a Kansas City woman who disappeared in 1985 with her infant daughter.
Authorities later learned that Robinson had given the baby to his brother and sister-in-law, who believed he had arranged a legitimate adoption for them.
Friday’s ruling does not affect Robinson’s convictions in Cass County, Mo., where he pleaded guilty to killing five other women. Three of those victims were found inside barrels in a Raymore storage locker. He was sentenced to life in prison for those crimes.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster handled those cases when he was Cass County prosecutor.
“John E. Robinson committed the worst serial homicides in Kansas City history,” Koster said Friday. “I’m gratified the Kansas Supreme Court today upheld his well-deserved death sentence.”
In Friday’s opinion, written by Justice Caleb Stegall, the Supreme Court found that a number of errors were made during the trial, but they did not prevent Robinson from receiving a fair trial.
The court also praised then Johnson County district judge John Anderson III for his handling of the complex case.
Paul Morrison, who led the prosecution as district attorney, also said Anderson’s careful handling of the case was a big factor in the court’s decision.
“I’m glad they upheld the death penalty,” said Morrison, who now practices law in Olathe. About half of all death sentences nationally are vacated for technical legal errors, he noted.
Justice Lee Johnson penned the sole dissent to the court’s decision, saying he also would have dismissed the remaining capital charge. Johnson wrote that he believes the death penalty violates the Kansas Constitution.
Robinson’s 1 1/2 -month-long trial in Johnson County revealed a man who engaged in years of cunning depravity while at the same time projecting the facade of a suburban father and grandfather.
Salacious details about the sadistic sexual lifestyle he shared with some of his victims drew both national and international news coverage.
Two of those women, Suzette Trouten, 27, of Michigan, and Izabela Lewicka, 21, of Indiana, moved to the Kansas City area after exchanging online communications with Robinson. Both believed that he was offering them jobs, and both agreed to be his sex slave.
A missing person report filed by Trouten’s family in 2000 led to the discovery of their bodies on Robinson’s Linn County property and the subsequent investigation that led to the discovery of three other bodies in Raymore.
Investigators also linked Robinson to three women who disappeared in the 1980s and never were found.
One of them, Lisa Stasi, last was seen by her family with Robinson in 1985. The investigation led police to the Chicago area, where they discovered that Robinson’s 15-year-old adopted niece was actually Stasi’s daughter.
Evidence at his trial showed that Robinson had forged documents to convince his brother and sister-in-law that their adoption of the baby had been arranged by an attorney. He even charged them $5,000 to pay for the adoption.
After the discovery of the bodies in Linn County, investigators searched the storage locker Robinson rented in Raymore.
One of the three victims found there, 45-year-old Sheila Faith, had moved to the Kansas City area with her 15-year-old disabled daughter to be with Robinson after meeting him online. The body of Debbie Faith also was in the storage locker. Robinson continued to collect Social Security checks mailed to them years after their deaths.
The other Raymore victim was Beverly Bonner, 49, who left her husband for Robinson after meeting him in a Missouri prison where she worked and he served a sentence for financial fraud. Robinson cashed alimony checks from Bonner’s former husband after killing her.
Robinson covered his tracks by spinning an intricate maze of deceit to make their families believe the women were still alive.
After his Johnson County trial, Robinson pleaded guilty to the Cass County killings. He also admitted to killing Paula Godfrey, 19, and Catherine Clampitt, 27, both of whom never were found after vanishing in the 1980s. In exchange for those guilty pleas, Koster agreed to a life sentence instead of seeking the death penalty.
Under Kansas law, capital murder is confined to a limited circumstances. One is killing more than one person as part of a common scheme or during the same course of conduct.
In Friday’s ruling, the court found that prosecutors had proved those connections.
“The state presented ample evidence that Robinson lured his victims with promises of financial gain, employment, or travel; exploited them sexually or financially; used similar methods to murder and dispose of their bodies; and used deception to conceal the crimes, including phony letters and e-mails to victims’ friends and family members,” the court ruled.
But where the state erred was in how it structured the two capital murder charges involving Trouten and Lewicka. In each charge, they listed the killings of Stasi, Bonner and Debbie and Sheila Faith as part of the same common scheme.
Howe, the Johnson County district attorney, said that in 2000, prosecutors didn’t have the benefit of subsequent appeals court rulings that provided guidance on charging capital cases.
“At that time, this was probably the right way to go,” he said.