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Kansas DNA Testing Eligibility Extended to Second-Degree Murder

Kansas DNA Testing Eligibility Extended to Second-Degree Murder

by Mark Wilson

The Kansas Supreme Court held on October 4, 2013 that a state law denying DNA testing to prisoners convicted of second-degree murder violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Kansas prisoners convicted of first-degree murder or rape may petition for post-conviction DNA testing under K.S.A. 21-2512. Second-degree murderers, however, are ineligible for similar DNA testing.

In 1993, Jerome Cheeks was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment. Over a decade later he filed a pro se petition, pursuant to § 21-2512, for DNA testing of 30 items collected from the crime scene. His petition was summarily denied, with the court finding that Cheeks was ineligible for DNA testing under the statute’s plain language.

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed, concluding that first- and second-degree murderers are “similarly situated” because they receive the same maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The Court then applied the “rational basis test,” noting that it had previously held in State v. Denney, 278Kan. 643, 101 P.3d 1257 (Kan. 2004),that neither cost nor severity of the crime justifies excluding similarly situated offenders from DNA testing eligibility.

Following Denney and conceiving of no rational basis for barring second-degree murderers from DNA testing, the Court concluded that “K.S.A. 21-2512 violates the Equal Protection Clause and is unconstitutional.”

Rather than invalidate § 21-2512, however, the Supreme Court extended “the benefits of the statute to include those improperly omitted.” As such, the Court reversed and directed the lower court to determine on remand “whether Cheeks satisfied the remaining statutory requirements entitling him to DNA testing under K.S.A. 21-2512.” Three justices issued dissenting opinions. See: Kansas v. Cheeks, 298 Kan. 1, 310 P.3d 346 (Kan. 2013).


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Related legal case

Kansas v. Cheeks