Gov. Sam Brownback calls September special session to rewrite "Hard 50" criminal sentencing law

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Some Kansas legislators and prosecutors seeking a quick rewrite of the state's "Hard 50" law believed they could save the tough penalty in pending murder cases with new sentencing hearings for convicted offenders as Gov. Sam Brownback on Friday called a special session of the Legislature.

Defense attorneys were skeptical that the state could retroactively apply any changes approved during the special session set to begin Sept. 3.

The law allows judges to sentence convicted murderers to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision raised questions about the law's constitutionality, prompting Brownback's decision to call a special session.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt had sought a special session, and his request had bipartisan support from legislators and prosecutors.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month in a Virginia case that juries must consider whether the facts in a case trigger mandatory minimum sentences. In Kansas, judges weigh the evidence in deciding whether to hand down the "Hard 50" sentence or life with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Brownback said in a statement that because defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy criminal trial, "time is of the essence" in rewriting the law.

"The sudden absence of the `hard 50' sentence poses a real and present danger to the public safety of all Kansans," Brownback said.

Schmidt's office has said it's identified about two dozen murder cases that could be affected by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling but believes there could be more.

He and other prosecutors and legislators argue that because they're making a change in the sentencing process -- and not creating a new crime or lengthening sentences -- they can apply a new law to existing cases.

Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said that would allow additional hearings in district courts if a convicted murderer who received the "Hard 50" had the sentence overturned on appeal.

"It seems to me that what we have to do is provide these people with new sentencing hearings before juries," Rubin said.

But Richard Ney, a Wichita defense attorney, called such a scenario "a pipe dream," saying, "You don't get a do-over."

He added: "It doesn't help in cases that have been finished, I guarantee it."

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