Kansas City Star. March 3, 2023.
Editorial: Jailhouse informants can have incentive to lie. Kansas bill shows the bigger picture
In an era when crime issues are often played for partisan advantage, it’s rare to see Republicans and Democrats come together in the cause of keeping innocent people out of prison. That just happened in the Kansas House. Soon, we hope, the state Senate will repeat the accomplishment.
State House legislators last week overwhelmingly passed a bill that would require Kansas prosecutors to disclose information to defendants about so-called “jailhouse informants.” Those are folks who sometimes testify against defendants at criminal trials — usually with information obtained while both the witness and defendant were imprisoned together, and generally with the expectation the informant will see his or her own punishment reduced.
Jailhouse informants have obvious incentives to testify. And sometimes those incentives lead them to stretch the truth, or even lie outright.
That’s what happened to Olin “Pete” Coones Jr., for whom the new bill is named. Coones, a retired mail carrier and father of five, spent 12 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder following the 2008 deaths of Kathleen and Carl Schroll in Wyandotte County. Prosecutors produced no physical evidence or witnesses tying Coones to the deaths. But they did offer the testimony of a jailhouse informant who had a history of mental illness and dishonesty — and who testified that Coones had confessed the crimes to him in the cell they shared while awaiting trial.
A dozen years later, authorities determined that Kathleen Schroll actually had committed a murder-suicide — and that Coones had been railroaded by the prosecution. He was exonerated and released from prison at the end of 2020. Just three months later, he died of cancer at age 64.
Before he died, though, Coones called on lawmakers to make the informant process more transparent. The Kansas House bill would do that by requiring prosecutors to disclose the agreements they make with informants, as well as informants’ criminal history — and their history of acting as informants in other cases. Testimony from informants wouldn’t be prohibited, but defendants and juries would have a better picture of why and how those informants ended up on the stand.
The bill is “just saying we think only reliable testimony should be used to convict people,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.
What might be most remarkable about the bill, though, is the support it has received from a wide array of advocacy organizations. The Midwest Innocence Project and the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are both backing it, as might be expected, but so is the conservative Americans for Prosperity and a victims’ advocacy organization, the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
“It’s just generally considered noncontroversial to believe innocent people shouldn’t be in prison,” Bushnell said. “It’s pretty easy for people to want to come to that table.”
That broad backing produced overwhelming support in the Kansas House, which voted 117-4 in favor. The bill now goes to the state Senate.
Unfortunately, final passage is far from assured. Last year, a similar bill passed the Kansas House with unanimous backing — only to die in the Legislature’s upper chamber. Advocates aren’t quite sure what will happen this time around.
“What we’ve seen is that the will to pass this continues in the House,” Bushnell said. “We’re hopeful the Senate will take it up and hear it.”
We share that hope — and find it unlikely that Coones is the only Kansan wrongly imprisoned using the testimony of a jailhouse informant. The Star’s Luke Nozicka reported that it has happened at least 10 times in Missouri in recent years, including with the recently-released Lamar Johnson. And a recent study by the University of Notre Dame uncovered more than 200 such wrongful convictions across the country.
“Regardless of their obvious conflicts of interest, jailhouse informants are extremely effective in persuading jurors to convict,” the study found.
The Kansas bill would simply arm defendants with knowledge of those conflicts. Pete Coones and his family can’t ever recover the 12 years he spent in prison. But it’s not too late to better ensure justice for future defendants.
Topeka Capital-Journal. March 3, 2023.
Editorial: Kansas should be glad AG Kris Kobach is fighting price gouging during Winter Storm Uri
Here in Kansas, March signifies the changing of the seasons. Sure there are a few false springs, second and third winters, maybe even a mud season before we’ll see true spring, but it’s on the way.
You can see it in the trees starting to bud, in the tulips and crocuses and other bulbs starting to emerge.
With that change, it can be easy to forget that winter weather can leave a toll even after the snow melts.
The 2021 winter certainly left a mark for many Kansans. Especially those who got slapped with a large gas bill in the wake of Winter Storm Uri.
Almost two years later, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach hasn’t forgotten.
The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Andrew Bahl reports Kris Kobach’s office has filed suit against a key firm that serves as a middleman for Kansas gas utilities, arguing it manipulated market prices during a 2021 winter storm that saw temperatures plummet and gas costs skyrocket across the Great Plains.
Kobach’s office alleges that Macquarie Energy engaged in an artificially inflated sale of natural gas in order to drive the benchmark used to set gas prices upward and thus increase costs for utilities.
Kobach is using his office to advocate for those who can’t do so for themselves. He’s fighting against unfair fixed prices. He’s pursuing justice for Kansans and businesses. We appreciate that greatly. Thank you for doing your job.
“Indeed, no one has ever paid any fixed price for Southern Star gas even remotely close to the price that Macquarie agreed to pay,” the lawsuit said. “The fixed price that Macquarie agreed to pay … is — and at the time of its transaction (and delivery) was — an outlier: far above, and disconnected from, all other contemporary Southern Star transaction prices.”
Bahl reports shortly after Uri slammed Kansas, then-Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced he was launching a price-gouging investigation under the state’s consumer protection laws. Schmidt’s office signed a contract with a Florida-based law firm to support the investigation last year and filed a subpoena enforcement suit against Macquarie Energy in November.
Here’s hoping Kobach can do some spring cleaning for Kansas with this second lawsuit.