WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The state violated the rights of a convicted sex offender by holding him in jail for years without a trial under the claim that he was a sexually violent predator subject to involuntary civil commitment, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The state's highest court agreed with a ruling by Sedgwick County District Judge Benjamin Burgess, who in 2014 ordered Todd Ellison released from jail. The Supreme Court found that the state violated Ellison's due process rights to a speedy trial after he remained jailed for 1,705 days awaiting trial.
Ellison's attorney, Michael Whalen, said his client was relieved. He said the decision also puts the Kansas attorney general's office on notice that such cases need to be a priority and move more quickly through the courts.
The attorney general's office released a statement Friday saying it has taken steps in recent years to speed up such cases and to better document delays caused be defense attorneys' requests.
"We will redouble our efforts to move these cases to trial," said Jennifer Montgomery, spokeswoman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt. She added later that the office didn't anticipate further legal action at this time.
The Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act allows the state in some cases to involuntarily commit sex offenders for additional treatment after they serve their prison sentence. But an individual is entitled to a jury trial to determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether they are violent predators.
Such trials are civil cases litigated by the attorney general's office, and can result in a sex offender being held in state custody for years beyond their original prison sentence. Most who have been committed have not been released.
"This is a big thing," Whalen said. "They are life sentences. Since the program was established in 1995, 29 have died while only four people have actually gotten out of the program."
Online court records show Ellison was sentenced in 2003 to more than eight years in prison on a charge of sexual exploitation of a child. It's unclear if that case was the basis of the civil commitment petition that the state filed against him in 2009, while he was still in prison.
He was confined on the commitment claim at the Sedgwick County Detention Center until Burgess ordered his release in March 2014. Ellison has since moved to Denver, where he has been working, has his own place and is "doing quite well," Whalen said.
Kansas typically files about 20 sexually violent predator commitment cases a year, Whalen said, estimating that the state has about 60 pending cases that have been filed over the past three years. He said once the government filed a commitment petition, the average case takes between two and three years to get to trial.
Whalen said delays are partly due to the fact that only one or two assistant attorneys general handle such cases statewide, and they are not pushed forward very quickly. A state Supreme Court decision in 2012 changed the way the cases are handled by defense attorneys, requiring that people facing civil commitments have competent counsel, which has caused more delays.
The justices faulted both sides in Ellison's case for continuances that delayed his trial. While noting there was "no evidence of any improper motive" lurking behind the delays, the court determined that the state had an obligation to bring the case to trial.
"It cannot fulfill that obligation by remaining passive year after year," the justices wrote.