TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments Monday about whether a convicted murderer's minimum 50-year prison term should stand, given recent court-ordered changes to the sentencing law, or whether it should be vacated so that a jury can decide his fate.
The court heard the appeal of Matthew Astorga, who was sentenced to serve a minimum of 50 years behind bars before he would be eligible for parole in a 2008 shooting death in Leavenworth County. Astorga's is the second appeal of a so-called "Hard 50" sentence that the state's high court has heard since legislators rewrote the law this fall in response to a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Kansas previously allowed judges to sentence those convicted of premeditated first-degree murder to 50 years in prison before they could seek parole. But the nation's highest court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide if a defendant gets that sentence.
Astorga's attorney, Randall Hodgkinson, contends that Astorga should face only 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
He told the court that when legislators rewrote the law in September, they effectively created a new crime of aggravated premeditated first-degree murder, since juries would be required to find beyond reasonable doubt that aggravating factors in the case warranted the longer prison term. Hodgkinson said Astorga was never charged with that crime because it didn't exist at the time of the shooting, and that Astorga therefore can't be sentenced to the Hard 50. The creation of new crimes or enhancing penalties after the fact violates the U.S. Constitution's ex post facto clause.
Justice Lee Johnson asked what was disclosed at Astorga's trial about his 1996 conviction in New Mexico for second-degree murder. He said the particulars of that case — for example, whether Astorga was merely present when someone was killed or whether he killed someone himself — would have a significant bearing on his Kansas sentence.
But Kristafer Ailslieger, deputy solicitor general for the state, said Astorga's New Mexico conviction was factor enough in determining Astorga's sentence, noting that no objection was made at trial about it being offered as a fact in the case. Prior felony convictions for causing the death or bodily harm of another have been and remain a factor that can make a defendant eligible for the stiffer penalty.
In the New Mexico case, Astorga was convicted of second-degree murder but an appeals court reversed the decision in 1999, saying jurors should have had the option of convicting him of manslaughter. Astorga, who had originally claimed self-defense in the shooting, entered a plea agreement to second-degree murder and completed his prison sentence.
Attorneys from both sides on Monday urged the court to issue a ruling soon in the case.
"The decision you make on a remedy determines the rights of real people right now," Hodgkinson told the court.
Ailslieger said it was important for the justices to rule on the legality of applying the law retroactively so that prosecutors would know how to proceed with such cases. He added that if the court rules that such inmates deserve new sentencing hearings, the state would likely pursue Hard 50 prison terms against them again, Ailslieger said.
Justices have options in deciding whether changes to the "Hard 50" law are valid. First, they could determine that all cases on appeal are eligible for the "Hard 50" but only if sent back to district court for resentencing and a jury determines if the evidence supports a minimum of 50 years in prison.
If the justices decide that the changes made to the law can't be applied retroactively, then the maximum mandatory sentence the defendants can receive is 25 years to life. Defendants could still appeal their convictions on other grounds but would otherwise be eligible for parole after 25 years. There are more than a dozen cases on appeal and more than two dozen others that were initiated before legislators changed the law in September that are either still in the trial or sentencing phase.