Lawyers for Frazier Glenn Cross, Jr., the man convicted of the deadly attack on the Jewish Community Center in April 2014, argued for his death sentence to be reversed Monday, saying the Johnson County District Court erred in allowing him to represent himself.
In arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court, attorney Reid Nelson pressed for Cross’s death sentence to be overturned on several other grounds as well, including vagueness in the law of how hate crimes can be used as an aggravating factor in such cases.
The high court’s seven-member panel will offer its decision at an unspecified later date.
Cross, who is also known by the name Glenn Miller, was convicted in August 2015 of killing three people — two at the community center and one at the nearby Village Shalom retirement home — and with firing at or assaulting four others and firing into the community center itself.
The shootings happened near the center’s theater entrance, as auditions were in progress for the KC SuperStar high school singing contest.
Killed were William Corporon, 69, and his grandson, Reat Underwood, 14, and Terri LaManno, 53, an occupational therapist whose mother lived at Village Shalom.
Cross’ guilt was not at issue in the appeal. In fact, Cross, an avowed white supremacist from Aurora, Mo., admitted to the killings and said that he intended to kill as many Jews as possible, although none of the three victims were Jewish.
Monday’s appeal dealt instead with the district court’s decisions leading up to the penalty phase of the trial, which followed the conviction by about a week.
Cross decided to forego lawyers and insisted on representing himself during the trial, although he was appointed three standby lawyers.
Nelson argued that because of the legal intricacies of the penalty phase and the consequences of getting it wrong, a layperson shouldn’t self-represent during a death penalty phase. Even lawyers not trained for it would have a hard time, he said.
During a death penalty hearing, jurors are normally presented with aggravating and mitigating factors to weigh whether the conviction merits a death sentence. Under normal circumstances, the jury might have heard about Cross’s own close family, the deaths of his two sons, his military record, depression, illness or other things that might evoke sympathy Nelson said.
It’s those factors, “that make the jury understand that the person has suffered in life, makes the jury connect with that person, gives the jury the option of exercising the harsh punishment of life without parole as being an adequate answer for this person’s future,” Nelson said. “The juror who makes this decision, they ought to be able to leave feeling as though they made a reasoned response to the case.”
But representing himself, Cross instead emphasized his apocalyptic anti-Jewish beliefs that the white race is being endangered by diversity and that he was a patriot and would-be martyr.
Lawyers also said the court ought to have seen from Cross’s behavior that he was in a “gray area” of being fit to conduct his own defense and was mentally unbalanced.
Cross had been deemed fit to stand trial but exhibited paranoid and delusional behavior as the trial progressed, Nelson said.
For instance, he spoke of conspiracies against him by his original lawyers and nurses. He also said he believed the Israeli secret service was assassinating people in the United States and feared being flown to Israel. If that happened, he said he would consider jumping out of the open plane, according to the appeal document.
The panel also spent some time discussing whether instructions to consider “especially heinous” conduct, such as Cross’s hatred, should have been allowed.
Nelson argued that the instruction is unconstitutionally vague because there are no limits on the jury’s discretion on what is heinous. Without those limits, every premeditated murder committed without justification can be viewed by some jurors as especially heinous, he said.
But Johnson County District Attorney SteveHowe, who spoke Monday against overturning Cross’ death sentence, said hate crimes were well-defined and are not applied “willy nilly.” He said there still would have been enough aggravating evidence for a death sentence even without the hate crime intention.
Howe also countered that Cross demonstrated through his actions that he was competent to represent himself. His attack was planned extensively and psychiatry does not recognize racism as a mental health disorder, he said.
Cross offered motions and even appeared to play games and bait the judge and prosecutors, Howe said.
“I would use the phrase, he’s crazy like a fox,” Howe said.
Defendants are allowed to represent themselves, and “This was his case,” Howe said. Everything he wanted to talk about we let him talk about.”
Seven Days event next month
There was no comment Monday on the proceedings from the Jewish Community Center leadership.
But the Corporon family issued a statement repeating commitment to “bringing goodness from the hate that stole our loved ones and shattered our lives. We believe that hate and evil can be overcome with love, kindness, faith and healing.”
The Faith Always Wins Foundation, which the Corporon family started, will host its annual event Seven Days Make a Ripple, Change the World from April 13-25. The event was started in honor of the attack’s three victims — William Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno.
The foundation urged participation in this year’s event, which is virtual because of COVID-19, by registering at www.givesevendays.org.
“Regardless of the outcome of (Monday’s) legal hearing, we continue to honor the legacies and memories of our loved ones, William Corporon and Reat Underwood. We are lifted by our faith in God, your kind words and your prayers,” the family’s statement said.