Monday, November 11, 2013

A veteran's quest for veterans courts in Kansas

Happy Veterans Day!  Sixty years ago today, Veterans Day was first celebrated in Emporia, Kansas.  At that time, the national holiday was known as Armistice Day, to commemorate the end of World War I.  But the folks in Emporia, particularly shoe cobbler Alvin King, believed that we needed a national holiday to commemorate veterans of all wars, not just those of World War I.  Thus, on November 11, 1953, Emporia celebrated the first Veterans Day.  The national holiday would become official the very next year, after a bill was introduced by Congressman Ed Rees, a native of Emporia, and eventually signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, another Kansan.  In 2003, Congress passed a resolution recognizing Emporia, Kansas as the founding city of Veterans Day.

Today, Emporia is home to another Kansan wanting to help veterans of foreign wars.  Brandon Flint, a veteran of two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army, is hoping to bring a veterans court to Emporia.  Notably, twenty-seven different states have a veterans court in at least one jurisdiction.  But Kansas is not one of them.

Mr. Flint's motivation for bringing veterans courts to Kansas stems from his own treatment by the justice system.  Mr. Flint was prosecuted for a felony in Emporia for defending his fiancée from two men.  Despite being located in the founding city of Veterans Day, Mr. Flint believed that the justice system in Emporia operated without regard to the training and issues that he dealt with as a veteran of a foreign war.  Mr. Flint wants his experience to aid other veterans that might face similar circumstances.  And that means he wants to bring veterans courts to Kansas, so other veterans are treated by a justice system that appreciates the special circumstances and treatment requirements for veterans of foreign wars.

The Conviction

In 2008, Brandon Flint was convicted by a Lyon County jury of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.  The conviction stemmed from Mr. Flint's use of his firearm to defend his fiancée.  The evidence at trial showed that Mr. Flint and his fiancée were leaving an Emporia bar at the same time as two men whom had given them trouble inside the bar.  As they were all leaving the bar, the other men got into an altercation with Mr. Flint's fiancée.  At one point, Mr. Flint's fiancée was on the ground with the two men standing over her, struggling with her.  Mr. Flint immediately went to his car, grabbed his firearm, walked up to the men, and ordered them to get off of his fiancée.  The men quickly complied, but Mr. Flint was later arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.   

Mr. Flint's case presented a clear example of the affirmative defense of "defense of another."  But at his trial, the prosecutor objected to the jury receiving an instruction on this defense, arguing that Mr. Flint used excessive force.  The court agreed and refused to instruct the jury on this defense.  So the jury never got to decide whether Mr. Flint was legally allowed to defend his fiancée, even though that was his entire theory of defense.  Mr. Flint appealed his conviction to the Kansas Court of Appeals.  While the appeal was pending, Mr. Flint was labeled a felon, he had to report to a probation officer for two years, and he had to register as a violent offender under the Kansas Offender Registration Act. 

The Appeal

Brandon Flint appealed his case to the Kansas Court of Appeals, asking for a new trial.  Specifically, he wanted a jury to decide if he was lawfully defending his fiancée when he pointed a gun at the men who had her on the ground.  Even though the case seemed a clear example of defense of another, the COA initially denied his claim, stating that it was controlled by the then-recent opinion in State v. Hendrix, 289 Kan. 859 (2009) (holding that a defendant must use "actual force" to justify a jury instruction on self-defense).  Under the logic of the Hendrix case, if Mr. Flint had shot the men, the jury likely would have received the defense-of-another instruction.  But because he handled the situation without the "use of force," as the term was used in K.S.A. 21–3211, he was not entitled to the defense-of-another instruction.  In the initial opinion from the COA, then Chief Judge Richard Greene wrote separately as follows:
I agree that the outcome here is controlled by State v. Hendrix, 289 Kan. 859, 218 P.3d 40 (2009), but I write separately to note that the factual scenario in this case is very much like the hypothetical scenario depicted by Chief Justice Davis' dissent in Hendrix. The fact that Flint has been deprived of self-defense here demonstrates the wisdom of the Chief Justice Davis' dissent and the urgent need for a legislative fix of K.S.A. 21–3211.

The Legislative Effort

A few days after Mr. Flint initially lost in the COA, the Kansas Legislature held hearings on a bill to fix the use-of-force statute interpreted by the Hendrix decision (2010 H.B. 2432).  The Hendrix opinion was based on the language of the applicable statute, so the Legislature intended to act fast to correct the statute.  Mr. Flint (and myself - as his attorney) went to the Legislature to testify regarding the bill.  We both testified about his case and specifically requested that any "Hendrix fix" be applied retroactively to his case (Randall Hodgkinson also provided similar testimony).

Mr. Flint testified in part as follows:
I'm now a felon because I protected the mother of my child from Mr. Mitchell.  I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't pulled a gun on Mr. Mitchell, but I know that Nicole made it away safely because I did.

About eight years ago, there was a football player, in Emporia, beat to death; three men were charged.  If he had done the same thing I did, he would be alive, but would be a felon like me.  He would have to register every four months as an offender, his driver's license would say "Registered Offender", the same words that appear on the licenses of registered pedophiles and rapists.  He would also have to attend community classes, have psychological evaluations done and attend a variety of meetings.

At my trial, my entire defense was built around "defense of another."  However, the judge threw out the instructions to the jury and I was convicted, because I "stuck by my guns," so to speak, and stated that I believed I had done the right thing.

I served two separate tours in Iraq with the United States Army.  I hauled jet fuel and was shot at with everything from AK-47's to RPG's and rockets.  Roadside bombs hit our convoys constantly.  I went through all of that to help keep our great nation safe, only to find that the same great nation I protected does not allow me to protect myself or my loved ones. 

On Friday, the Court of Appeals affirmed my conviction.  I was told by Mr. Folsom that these proceedings today have a direct bearing on my case.  I hope that a favorable decision will be made and will allow my case to be grandfathered, as it applies here into the laws you are about to change.  Thank you for your time.
After hearing this testimony, the Legislature added retroactive language to the "Hendrix fix" legislation.  The bill passed overwhelmingly.  In other words, the Legislature wanted this new law to apply to Mr. Flint.  And eventually, it did.

The Appeal Ends

At the time the new statute went into effect, Mr. Flint had asked the Kansas Supreme Court to review his case.  The KSC granted his petition for review and remanded the case back to the COA for consideration under the new retroactive self-defense statute (which had corrected the result in the Hendrix case).  On November 10, 2011, the day before Veterans Day, 2011, the COA reversed Mr. Flint's conviction.  At that point, he had been registering as a violent offender for three years.

After the COA's decision, the State filed a petition for review to the KSC, even though the Legislature had listened to Mr. Flint's testimony and agreed that the new statute should have an effect on his case.  In February of 2013, the KSC denied the State's petition for review, and the case was finally remanded to Lyon County District Court for a new trial.  Based on this reversal, the KBI was notified of the reversal and informed of its duty to take Mr. Flint off the offender registry. 

The Retrial

When the case went back to Lyon County, the prosecution decided to forge ahead.  They retried Mr. Flint in an effort to secure the same felony conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.  Someone in the prosecutor's office even told the KBI to put Mr. Flint back up on the offender registry because the case wasn't over yet (of course, the conviction had been reversed, but the KBI decided to err on the side of caution and put Mr. Flint's picture back on their website as a "non-compliant violent offender"). 

The new jury trial was held in July.  This time, the court ruled that the defense-of-another instruction had to be given in the case.  And of course, the jury found Mr. Flint not guilty.  Rick Meier won the acquittal for Mr. Flint. 

Veterans Court

After five years of trials, appeals, felon status, and offender registration, Mr. Flint finally has been vindicated.  But that is not enough for him.  He is now trying to help establish a veterans court in Kansas (preferably in Emporia).  In his mind, the system that treated him harshly for following his training should not be the status quo.  Instead, there should be a system that recognizes and attempts to address the particularized needs and treatment requirements of veterans. 

Courts in Kansas already have started to enact drug courts in an effort to address the special needs of drug offenders.  Veterans are similarly a unique class of individuals, with special needs, that many believe should be addressed in the criminal justice system.  Brandon Flint, after living it first hand, is one of those people.  And he is hoping that his case can once again spur legislative change.  

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