State Supreme Court hears 'Hard 50' appeal

 TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments Monday about whether a convicted murderer’s minimum 50-year prison term should stand, given recent court-ordered changes to the sentencing law, or whether it should be vacated so that a jury can decide his fate.

The court heard the appeal of Matthew Astorga, who was sentenced to serve a minimum of 50 years behind bars before he would be eligible for parole in a 2008 shooting death in Leavenworth County. Astorga’s is the second appeal of a so-called “Hard 50” sentence that the state’s high court has heard since legislators rewrote the law this fall in response to a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Kansas previously allowed judges to sentence those convicted of premeditated first-degree murder to 50 years in prison before they could seek parole. But the nation’s highest court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide if a defendant gets that sentence.

Astorga’s attorney, Randall Hodgkinson, argued that when legislators rewrote the law in September, they effectively created a new crime of aggravated premeditated first-degree murder, since juries would be required to find beyond reasonable doubt that aggravating factors in the case warranted the longer prison term. Hodgkinson said Astorga was never charged with that crime because it didn’t exist at the time of the shooting, and that Astorga therefore can’t be sentenced to the “Hard 50.”