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Kansas Supreme Court Selected Opinion Summaries
State v. John Henry Horton, Docket 93982
February 2, 2007

Summaries and press releases are prepared by Ron Keefover, Office of Judicial Administration, Kansas Judicial Center, 301 West 10th, Topeka, KS 66612-1507 (785-296-2256), e-mail: keefoverr@kscourts.org.

RE: Appeal No. 93,982: State v. John Henry Horton

Saying the trial court improperly admitted evidence of an alleged prior crime, the Supreme Court today unanimously reversed the felony murder conviction of a former Independence, MO, man who was found guilty of the July 1974 death of a 13-year-old girl who disappeared after cutting through a Prairie Village school ground where the defendant was working as a custodian.

John H. Horton was convicted of felony murder in the death of Liz Wilson, 13, Prairie Village, based upon the underlying felony of kidnapping for the purpose of committing indecent liberties with a minor. Wilson's remains were discovered in January 1975 near 105th Street and Lackman Road in Lenexa. Although the cause of death was not determined, it was the state's theory that the child died from chloroform poisoning after being kidnapped on the school grounds.

After determining the alleged prior bad act was inadmissible, the Supreme Court concluded there was insufficient evidence presented at Horton's preliminary hearing to bind him over for trial and ordered the charge dismissed. Although the Supreme Court today reversed the conviction and ordered the charge dismissed, the justices ruled on a number of other evidentiary issues in the event the state decides to try him again.

Justice Eric S. Rosen, writing for a unanimous Court, said the District Court erred when it allowed a witness to testify without requiring sufficient similarity between the victim's disappearance and the prior bad act alleged by the witness. The witness, a 14-year-old girl at the time of the disappearance, testified that she believed she had been sexually molested on a golf course after passing out from chloroform that was administered by the defendant. She had gone to the golf course with the defendant and his 15-year-old niece for the purpose of getting high.

The Court today ruled that the incident on the golf course should not have been admitted as evidence due to the failure to demonstrate sufficient similarity between the victim's disappearance and death and the witness's allegations of sexual abuse. "The only similarity appears to be the girls' ages," the Court held.

"We appreciate the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Liz Wilson and the need for finality and accountability of those responsible for her murder," Justice Rosen wrote for the court.

"All murders, and especially child murders, cry out for resolution and the need to bring killers to justice. However, any conviction resulting from Liz Wilson's death must be based on evidence that is relevant and satisfies the basic requirements of admissibility as set forth by Kansas law. Here, the trial court ignored a basic standard which has been part of the Kansas law for over 40 years by failing to require the State to show not just a sufficient similarity but any similarity between Liz Wilson's disappearance and death and the alleged prior bad act," the Court ruled.

In case there is a trial on new charges, the Court addressed evidentiary issues relating to the admission of hair evidence, physical evidence taken from the defendant's car, police records, and testimony of an accident reconstruction expert, all of which the Court held would be admissible in a new trial.