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State v. Brown

Supreme Court of Kansas

August 15, 2014


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Appeal from Wyandotte District Court; ERNEST L. JOHNSON, judge.


1. On appeal, the factual findings supporting a district court's order authorizing adult prosecution of a juvenile are reviewed for substantial competent evidence. The district court's evaluation and weighing of the statutorily-enumerated factors are reviewed for abuse of discretion.

2. When a party fails to object to or request a jury instruction at trial, an appellate court reviews any issue regarding the instruction under the clearly erroneous standard of K.S.A. 22-3414(3). In applying this standard, the reviewing court first determines whether there was error. This inquiry turns upon whether the instruction was legally and factually appropriate.

3. In a felony murder case under K.S.A. 21-3401(b), it is legally appropriate to instruct a jury that it can find a defendant guilty upon proof the defendant committed a killing while in flight from an attempt to commit an inherently dangerous felony.

4. The legislature did not intend to create alternative means of committing felony murder under K.S.A. 21-3401(b) by providing that felony murder occurs when there is a death " in the commission of, attempt to commit, or flight from an inherently dangerous felony." Instead, the phrase " in the commission of, attempt to commit, or flight from" describes factual circumstances sufficient to establish a material element of felony murder.

5. When sufficiency of the evidence is challenged in a criminal case, an appellate court's standard of review is whether, after reviewing all the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution, the reviewing court is convinced a rational factfinder could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Appellate courts do not reweigh evidence, resolve evidentiary conflicts, or make determinations regarding witness credibility.

6. An appellate court reviews a prosecutorial misconduct claim alleging improper comments using a two-step analysis. First, the appellate court decides whether the comments were outside the wide latitude a prosecutor is allowed, e.g., in discussing evidence. If so, there was misconduct. Second, if misconduct is found, the appellate court determines whether the improper comments prejudiced the jury against the defendant and denied the defendant a fair trial.

7. It is improper for a prosecutor to offer his or her personal opinion as to witness credibility, including the defendant.

8. The statutory sentencing scheme requiring that mandatory hard 20 life sentences be imposed on defendants convicted of felony murder does not violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution as applied to defendants who were under 18 years of age at the time of their crimes.

Lydia Krebs, of Capital Appellate Defender Office, argued the cause, and was on the brief for appellant.

Sheryl L. Lidtke, chief deputy district attorney, argued the cause, and Jerome A. Gorman, district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, were with her on the brief for appellee.

BILES, J. MORITZ, J., not participating. GERALD T. ELLIOTT, District Judge, assigned. [1]

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[300 Kan. 543] OPINION

Biles, J.

Keaira Brown appeals her convictions for felony murder and attempted aggravated robbery. She was 13 years old at the time the crimes occurred, and she was tried as an adult. She received a controlling hard 20 life sentence. She challenges the district court's

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waiver of juvenile jurisdiction, her convictions, and her life sentence.

As to the juvenile jurisdiction waiver, Brown argues the district court erred in analyzing the statutorily-enumerated factors that guided its decision. Regarding her convictions, she claims: (1) error instructing the jury that a killing in the flight from an attempt to commit an inherently dangerous felony constitutes felony murder; (2) insufficient evidence to support a conviction for each alternative means she claims the statute specifies for felony murder; (3) insufficient [300 Kan. 544] evidence to support her aggravated attempted robbery conviction; and (4) prosecutorial misconduct. Finally, Brown argues her hard 20 life sentence must be vacated because mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional as applied to offenders who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes. We affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

On July 23, 2008, 16-year-old Scott Sappington, Jr., sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the upper right side of his face. The wound was inflicted from point-blank range. Sappington's body was found with the head and torso lying across the driver's seat of his car with his legs and feet hanging out the driver's side window. The head wound was inflicted in the short period of time between Sappington approaching his car, which was parked in front of his grandmother's house, and the car coming to rest on a neighbor's curb after crashing into a fire hydrant and light pole as it rolled down the street.

Eyewitnesses saw a person walking toward Sappington's vehicle just before hearing two people argue, saw the vehicle roll down the street, heard a crashing noise, and saw a person leave the scene on foot after the car had stopped. Near the crime scene, other witnesses saw a person headed south on foot. And several blocks further south, a person approached two children who were playing outside, gave them some bloody clothing, and used a garden hose to wash off.

During the police investigation, Brown was identified as a suspect. Her DNA and fingerprint were discovered on the exterior of the front passenger side door of Sappington's car. The witness descriptions of the person seen approaching and leaving Sappington's vehicle matched Brown. Additional evidence and witness identifications further established Brown was the person seen heading south from the crime ...

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