University of Kansas law student helps overturn murder conviction

 "A murder conviction was overturned and it was in large part because of the work by a University of Kansas law student and Shawnee native.

Abby West spent more than 100 hours on Kimberly Sharp’s case with the Project for Innocence.

On July 2, 2006 authorities found the body of David Owen near the Kansas River in Topeka.

Owen called himself an advocate for the homeless and often tried to convince them to reunite with their families.

KU Innocence Project claims win in appeal case of woman convicted in high-profile Topeka murder

"As Abby West researched similar cases to prepare for the federal appeal of a woman convicted in a high-profile Topeka murder case, she encountered a recurring theme.

'I read a lot of cases where people didn’t win,' said West, a May Kansas University law school graduate.

But for defendant Kimberly Sharp, West’s efforts resulted in a different outcome — and a big success for the KU law school’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies.

KU's Project for Innocence wins murder conviction reversal in federal court

Monday, July 20, 2015


LAWRENCE – A learning experience for one University of Kansas law student turned into a second chance last week for a woman serving life in prison in connection with a high-profile Topeka murder.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 15 ruled that Kimberly Sharp was unconstitutionally convicted in the 2006 slaying of a Topeka homeless advocate. The court handed down the decision based on an appeal by KU’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies.

“We determine Ms. Sharp’s confessional statements following the promise of no jail time were involuntary, the state trial court erred by admitting them at trial in violation of Ms. Sharp’s Fifth and Fourteenth amendment rights, and the error was harmful,” judges wrote in a 3-0 decision.

Abby West, a 2015 KU Law graduate from Shawnee, authored the brief in the Sharp case while enrolled in Project for Innocence last summer. She spent hours poring over trial documents and prior decisions, including an unsuccessful appeal to the Kansas District Court. Project Director Jean Phillips supervised West’s research and writing.

“It was overwhelming at the beginning because I had never done any criminal defense work before,” West said. “At the same time, it was really interesting to familiarize myself with the case. I never got to meet Kim, but I read so much about what happened to her.”

In challenging the constitutionality of Sharp’s conviction, West set out to prove that her client’s rights to due process and equal protection under the law were violated when the trial court admitted statements Sharp made to police that were not freely and voluntarily given.

Sharp made those statements to police during the course of their investigation into the murder of David Owen, a self-professed homeless advocate known for ransacking homeless camps. In June 2006, he confronted Sharp and her three male co-defendants at a Topeka homeless camp.

After a brief altercation, two of the men dragged Owen into the woods and tied him to a tree, where he was later found dead. During an interview and re-enactment with police, Sharp made statements that implied she was a minor participant in the events and was subsequently charged in state court with first-degree felony murder and kidnapping.

Sharp moved to suppress her confessional statements, arguing they were involuntary because the police promised she wouldn’t go to jail and to help find shelter for her and her two young children. That effort failed in Shawnee County District Court, and a jury found Sharp guilty on both counts. The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed, and the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas denied Sharp’s petition for habeas relief.

After reviewing the interrogation videos, however, the 10th Circuit agreed that Sharp cooperated with the interviewing officer because he promised no jail time and that any statements she made after that promise should not have been admissible in court. The state now has the option to retry Sharp.

Federal habeas corpus cases are nearly impossible to win, said Phillips, a clinical professor of law at KU who presented oral arguments in Sharp’s case before the 10th Circuit. West deserves high praise for the latest victory, Phillips said.

“Our goal in the project is for students to take ownership of their cases. We don’t want them to be glorified paralegals,” Phillips said. “I’m the safety net to make sure that nothing gets missed and everything gets argued. But Abby took ownership. She did a great job with that brief.”

West, who is studying for the bar exam and finalizing her job plans, was excited to learn about the court’s favorable decision. Working on Sharp’s case and others in the Project for Innocence proved to be the best experience she had in law school.

“It was the one chance I had to work for a client who really needed my help. There are people out there who don’t have access to the justice system,” West said. “It showed me how important it is – even if you do corporate law – to try and do pro bono work or donate to people who do. As a law student, I see it as a privilege to be able to get this education. I think we have a duty to the public to give back.”

Photo: Recent KU Law graduate Abby West, left, discusses with clinical professor Jean Phillips last week’s favorable federal appeals court decision in a case that West handled as a student in KU’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies.

Gov. Sam Brownback issues executive order on religious liberty after same-sex marriage ruling

"Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order Tuesday prohibiting state government from taking action against clergy members or religious organizations that deny services to couples based on religious beliefs.

Among other things, the order is intended to protect religious organizations that provide adoption services for the state from having to place children with gay couples if that conflicts with their beliefs.

KU researchers say indigenous knowledge can be the key to combating climate change

"New research coming from the University of Kansas claims that indigenous knowledge is the key to fighting climate change.

Two researchers at KU explored a number of cases where indigenous communities adapted to and managed climate changes in their area. Researchers said with their knowledge, scientists can help apply those practices locally.

Two-spirit couple wed ‘white man way’ in Lawrence

"Some American Indian same-sex couples have been getting married, legally, by their tribal governments for years.

That wasn’t an option for Darla and Mattisa Harrison, of Lawrence, however. And even after Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling it still wouldn’t be, as the decision does not apply to tribal law, experts say.

Prioritizing legal standing over a traditional ceremony, at least initially, the Harrisons married in what they call “the white man way” at the Douglas County Courthouse in March. They believe they’re the first Indian same-sex couple to legally wed here.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - faculty
Why KU
  • One-third of full-time faculty have written casebooks used at U.S. law schools
  • 2 KU law faculty were U.S. Supreme Court clerks
  • KU’s Project for Innocence: 33 conviction reversals since 2009
  • 7,300+ alumni live in all 50 states and 18 foreign countries
  • #18 “best value” law school in the nation — National Jurist Magazine
  • 12 interdisciplinary joint degrees
  • 27th nationwide for lowest debt at graduation. — U.S. News & World Report
  • 70 percent of upper-level law classes have 25 or fewer students
  • Nearly 800 employment interviews at law school, 2012-13
  • Top 25% for number of 2013 grads hired by the nation’s largest law firms
  • 20th: for number of law alumni promoted to partner at the 250 largest law firms