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Court records may explain lesser charge in KCK officer's killing

Posted at 5:33 PM, Oct 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-26 18:50:48-04

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- There's outrage from the KCK mayor, police chief and members of a murdered police officer's family after his admitted killer pled guilty Thursday to a lesser crime than originally charged.

Jamaal Lewis, 22, admits he opened fire on KCK Police Captain Richard Melton's unmarked car in 2016 killing Melton.

"Kind of a difficult pill for the officers to accept and many of them have voiced their frustrations today," KCK Police Chief Terry Zeigler said Thursday.

Lewis pled guilty to first degree murder on Thursday.

Originally, he was charged with capital murder.

The difference is a conviction for capital murder could mean a possible death penalty or at a minimum, life in prison without parole.

The first degree murder plea means a sentence of life in prison with the first possibility of parole in 25 years.

"I don't understand that. We would've hoped to see capital murder charge with a life sentence, a true life sentence," Zeigler said.

It all started when Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree filed amended information with the court on October 5, exactly one month before the case was scheduled to go to trial.

That document offered an alternative to capital murder, the murder in the first degree charge.

Lewis and his attorneys decided their best option was to plead guilty to the first degree murder charge, removing the death penalty as an option and keeping the possibility of parole.

"My daughter, who is getting ready to turn two years old in December, will be standing in front of the parole board before her 25th birthday, because he gets credit for the time that he's been in there, begging them not to let him out. Because she took her father away before she was born," said Zeta Bates, Melton's fiancee.

The reasons Dupree included the first degree murder option so close to trial may be included in court documents.

First, court records show there was a nearly year long battle over Lewis' mental fitness to stand trial.

That battle became so heated, it included the judge finding a hospital in contempt of court for failing to turn over Lewis' medical records.

A source tells the 41 Action News Investigators Lewis has a history of mental illness dating to his childhood.

While the judge ultimately found Lewis competent to stand trial, federal law doesn't allow the execution of a mentally ill person.

Lewis' mental health could've been argued during trial or, if there was a conviction, at sentencing.

Secondly, under Kansas law, Dupree would've had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt Lewis' killing of Captain Melton was a premeditated or planned act to get a conviction for either capital or first degree murder.

But in Lewis' guilty plea filed with the court Thursday, Lewis initials a statement which reads in part, "I did not think about what I did before I shot at the unmarked white car. I pulled a gun out instantly and quickly fired several shots at the unmarked white car. I did not premeditate about shooting or killing anyone that day."

"I later learned that the unmarked white car was driven by Kansas City, Kansas Police Captain Robert Melton. I did not see Captain Melton point a gun at me, and I did not hear Captain Melton say anything to me. I shot at the unmarked white car because I was afraid I would be arrested by a police officer inside the car."

Under Kansas law, if a jury had found Lewis' shooting was not a premedidated or planned act, but an intentional one, the potential conviction would then become second degree murder.

The sentencing guideline for second degree murder in Kansas is 12.5 to 54 years in prison.

Because Lewis doesn't have a previous criminal record, his sentence could've been on the lower end of that guideline meaning Lewis potentially could've been out of prison with a fully completed sentence by roughly age 40.

Lewis also pled guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a third charge of criminal discharge of a firearm at an unoccupied dwelling.

Lewis is scheduled to be formally sentenced November 30.

It's likely Lewis will have to serve his time on the assault and weapon charges before the clock starts ticking on his 25 year parole eligibility.

A spokesman for Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said Dupree can't comment on the case until sentencing has been completed.