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Larry Lucas

Other Kansas exonerations
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On February 11, 2018, police in Wichita, Kansas stopped 61-year-old Larry Lucas for a traffic violation. During a search of his truck, police found a folding knife with a four-inch blade, which Lucas said he used for work.

Because Lucas had a prior felony conviction for drug possession, he was charged with criminal possession of a weapon by a felon.

Prior to trial, Lucas filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the folding knife was not a "knife" prohibited under the state statute, which defined a knife for purposes of a criminal-possession offense as "a dagger, dirk, switchblade, stiletto, straight-edged razor or any other dangerous or deadly cutting instrument of like character."

Lucas argued that the instruments listed in the statute have a "single purpose" of inflicting harm by cutting or stabbing while his folding knife had other intended uses.

The motion was denied, and the facts of the case were submitted by stipulation to the court for a bench trial in Sedgwick County District Court. On July 27, 2018, the judge convicted Lucas of the charge. The judge sentenced Lucas to 18 months in prison.

Lucas appealed, arguing that his folding knife was not one of the knives listed in the statute or similar to the knives the statute prohibited, and that the knives listed in the statute had the primary purpose of being a weapon. He contended that dirks, daggers, and stilettos have fixed, tapered blades and are used for stabbing, and, although straight-edged razors have folding, untapered blades, their sharpness and potential for concealment rendered them dangerous. In addition, switchblades are spring-loaded knives that historically have been used as weapons. Lucas contended his folding knife had none of these characteristics.

In March 2020, the Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

The appeals court declared, “When unfolded, the knife measured 9 inches in length, with a 4-inch blade; it could certainly inflict injury. And the folding knife, like the other instruments listed in the statute, has at least one sharp edge and is capable of being used as a weapon.”

In July 2020, the Kansas Supreme issued a ruling in an unrelated case involving a defendant named Christopher Harris. This ruling ultimately led to Lucas’s exoneration.

Like Lucas, Harris was a convicted felon. When he and another man got into an altercation on a Wichita street, Harris pulled out a pocket knife. A police cruiser was in the area and the officer turned his spotlight onto the men. The officer saw Harris drop an object which turned out to be the pocketknife.

Harris was charged with aggravated assault, criminal possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, and criminal use of a weapon. At his jury trial, Harris testified he felt in fear of his life and opened the knife only for protection. The pocketknife had a 3 1/2-inch blade with serrations. A jury convicted Harris of criminal possession of a weapon and acquitted him of the other two charges.

Before trial, Harris had sought to dismiss the possession charge, arguing that the law was unconstitutionally vague and that he was entitled to a mistake of law defense. He argued the statutory definition of a knife was unconstitutionally vague because it did not include a pocket knife as a prohibited weapon. The district court denied the motion, ruling that the knife at issue fell within the part of the statute prohibiting the possession of “any other dangerous or deadly cutting instrument of like character.”

Harris also moved to introduce evidence that his parole officer, Alexis Olave, had told him that the pocketknife was not a prohibited knife. Harris contended that Olave had advised Harris that he could carry the precise knife at issue, and he relied on that advice. Harris also provided a letter he had received from Olave after the incident in which she told him, “[Y]ou are allowed to have a pocket knife less than 4 inches in length while on post release. However, if the pocket knife is used in a threatening manner, then it can be viewed as a violation or as a crime.”

At the prosecution’s request, the judge declined to allow the evidence. Harris then filed another motion seeking to introduce the Kansas Department of Corrections Division of Community and Field Services Supervision Handbook, which stated: “An ordinary pocket knife with a blade no longer than 4 inches is not considered by law to be a dangerous knife, or a dangerous or deadly weapon or instrument.” At a hearing on his motion to reconsider, Harris personally testified, “I went to [s]tate orientation just a couple of months before this, the whole place told me, everybody at that place told me and they give me that [handbook] stating and they told me I could own that knife.”

The district court ruled again that Olave's advice—or implicitly, the advice of anyone at the Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC)—on what “counted” as a knife under the relevant statute was not an official opinion upon which Harris could rely. The district court denied the motion to reconsider.

After Harris was convicted, he appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. Harris appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which held that the clause in the statute referring to “a dangerous cutting instrument” was unconstitutionally vague.

“In these circumstances, enforcement officials must ask, what exactly is a dangerous cutting instrument of like character?” the Supreme Court said. “We are unable to discern a sufficiently objective standard of enforcement in this language. Instead, we are left with the subjective judgment of the enforcement agencies and actors. A pair of scissors? Maybe. A safety razor blade? Perhaps. A box cutter? Probably, but would that decision be driven by an objective rule or a historically contingent fear of box cutters?”

The court noted that the case was a “concrete example of government officials expressing and operating under diametrically opposed, yet plausible enforcement standards—a sure sign of subjectivity in action. The State of Kansas, through its prosecutors, believes (and has acted on that belief) that [the statute] is meant to be enforced against Harris and his pocketknife. But the State of Kansas has also, through its Department of Corrections, published a handbook and advised parolees (including Harris) that [the statute] is not meant to be enforced against Harris and his pocket knife.”

The court said the “circumstances present us with an unmistakable instance of arbitrary enforcement of an inherently subjective standard.” The court ordered Harris’s conviction vacated and dismissed.

Based on the decision in the Harris case, Lucas sought review by the Kansas Supreme Court. In September 2020, the Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ affirmation of Lucas’s conviction and remanded the case for consideration in light of the finding in the Harris case.

On October 14, 2020, the Kansas Court of Appeals vacated Lucas’s conviction and ordered the case dismissed.

In 2021, attorney Matthew Dwyer filed a lawsuit seeking compensation on behalf of Lucas. On May 10, 2022, Sedgwick County District Judge Faith Maughan granted Lucas a certificate of innocence and ruled that he was entitled to compensation.

Judge Maughan rejected the argument of the Kansas Attorney General’s office that Lucas was not entitled to compensation “[b]ecause of his own felonious conduct caused or brought about his conviction.”

In response, Dwyer noted that Lucas was legally entitled to possess the knife. He said the attorney general was essentially arguing that “because you have a criminal history, you are not as deserving as a person to be compensated as one who has no criminal history.”

Judge Maughan agreed with Lucas, saying: “The Court specifically finds that as a matter of law being a convicted felon is not a crime, and as such only one element of the underlying crime was satisfied.” She said that Lucas was entitled to $79,602 based on 447 days of imprisonment. The judge also awarded $20,889 in attorney’s fees and costs.

In September 2022, Lucas agreed to settle the case for $50,000 to avoid awaiting an appeal by the Attorney General’s Office.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/19/2022
Last Updated: 9/19/2022
State:Kansas
County:Sedgwick
Most Serious Crime:Weapon Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2018
Convicted:2018
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:1 year and 6 months
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:61
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No