TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas’ highest court on Friday postponed a decision on whether the state can execute a man who was convicted of kidnapping, raping and strangling a 19-year-old college student, because of questions about whether he is developmentally disabled.
The state Supreme Court upheld the capital murder conviction for Justin Eugene Thurber but sent his case back to the trial court for another review of whether he has a disability that would bar the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute defendants with even mild developmental disabilities.
In Friday’s 5-2 ruling , the Kansas Supreme Court also declared unconstitutional a piece of the state’s capital punishment law that deals with how courts determine whether defendants are developmentally disabled, finding it too restrictive in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years.
Thurber was sentenced to lethal injection for the January 2007 killing of Jodi Sanderholm. She was a pre-pharmacy student and member of the Tigerette dance team at Cowley College, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of Wichita. Kansas’ highest court isn’t striking down Thurber’s death sentence, keeping control over the case as the trial court reviews it again.
“We have determined that the best interests of justice require remanding this limited question on intellectual disability to the district court for further proceedings,” Justice Dan Biles wrote for the majority.
An attorney for Thurber told the state Supreme Court in October hearing that Thurber’s IQ has been estimated to be in the 70s or 80s, that he read at a sixth-grade level in college and that his parents testified he would have had trouble living on his own.
During the penalty phase of his trial, Thurber’s attorneys sought a hearing on whether he has an intellectual disability after a jury recommended a death sentence but before the judge imposed it. The judge denied the request, though, saying they had failed to present enough evidence to warrant such a hearing.
The judge’s decision came after a defense witness said he wouldn’t describe Thurber as mentally disabled, and the judge noted that Thurber had graduated from high school, attended two years of college, obtained a driver’s license and held several jobs.
Dissenting state Supreme Court Justice Eric Rosen said he would have upheld that decision, allowing Thurber to be executed. The other dissenter, Justice Lee Johnson, argued as he has in other capital cases that the death penalty violates the state constitution.
Thurber, 35, is one of 10 condemned inmates in Kansas, though the state hasn’t executed anyone since restoring the death penalty in 1994. The state’s last executions happened in June 1965, when it hanged serial killers James Latham and George York.
Authorities say Thurber kidnapped Sanderholm after following her from a dance practice and took her to a rural area, where he raped, beat and strangled her. He disposed of her car in a lake. Her body was found in a nearby wildlife area and authorities used DNA evidence to tie Thurber to the crimes.
Two other members of the dance team said Thurber had stalked them, and a former girlfriend of his who sought a restraining order said he had followed and texted her.
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