TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Five specially-trained public defenders will be defending Mickel Cherry, a man charged with capital murder in the death of Zoey Felix.
The attorneys are part of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, which is tasked with representing indigent criminal defendants charged with capital murder in Kansas. Kansas Capitol Bureau spoke with Chief Defender Mark Manna on Tuesday. He said the special unit, which is comprised of attorneys with experience in death penalty litigation, is called in whenever a defendant could potentially face death.
“Whenever someone is charged anywhere in Kansas with the [capital murder] … our unit will be appointed by the courts, we will assemble a team of attorneys … a minimum of two attorneys … sometimes, as many as three or four … along with fact investigators, mitigation investigators, and paralegals, and that team’s job will be to represent the individual in their criminal case to prepare the case, not only for trial but to prepare it for the inevitability that they could be facing the death penalty,” Manna said.
What is the Kansas death penalty defense unit?
The special unit is part of the public defender system in Kansas and was established when the state revived the death penalty in 1994.
According to Manna, each case is different, and each defendant is different. He said the number of attorneys on the case can vary, depending on the amount of information and evidence in the case.
“Some of the cases that we currently represent criminal defendants on are mass shootings, so there is a volume of discovery that has to be reviewed and a number of witnesses that have to be interviewed,” Manna said. “Some of our clients have extensive backgrounds that are not just in Kansas, but they’re from other states, so we have to travel to other states to locate the records … the family … the friends … the people that knew them.”
“We have a couple of cases where we have as many as four or five attorneys … there really isn’t a cap … it’s based on the resources we have available to us … and what’s needed for each case”, Manna explained.
How will the legal process play out?
Manna said capital murder cases can take years to play out and can also require a large team to dig into the details.
Five public defenders will be on the team defending Cherry, who also has a criminal past in the state of Texas.
Court documents show Mickel Cherry, 25, of Topeka, has a history with law enforcement in Texas going back to 2018. He was previously charged for instances of fighting, poor treatment of animals and trespassing.
Cherry is expected to appear in court for a motion hearing on Dec. 13 in Shawnee County.
If he is eventually found guilty of capital murder in the case of Zoey Felix, there is then a second trial, which is called the “penalty stage.”
Manna said that many factors are considered in defending someone who could be facing death.
“During that second stage, the jurors want to know reasons why the death penalty should be imposed or why a life sentence should be imposed. They want to know who this person was … where they were born … where they were raised … do they have any abuse in their background … did they suffer from any mental illness.”
What qualifies a death sentence?
It takes 12 jurors to unanimously decide whether to sentence someone to death. Manna said even one outlier would result in an alternate sentence.
The rare punishment hasn’t resulted in an execution since 1965.
There are nine inmates currently on “death row” in Kansas, housed at El Dorado Correctional Facility in Butler County.
“There’s what’s called special management … which is kind of an administrative segregation area … and that’s where the defendants, the clients that have been sentenced to death, have been housed for the last 20+ years,” Manna said.
Manna said capital murder cases that result in a death sentence would automatically be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court. The case is then turned over to the appellate section of the death penalty defense unit.
If both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts affirm the appeal, it is then turned over to
“A capital murder case in which there is a sentence of death … takes a lot of time … take a lot of effort,” Manna said. “Sentences of life without the possibility of parole, I believe, are always an appropriate sentence.”