A disciplinary board ruling says the judicial court reporter for the murder trial of Dana Chandler deserves public reprimand for offering her opinion on the case in social media comments.
Punishment for the court reporter, April Shepard, will be determined by the Kansas Supreme Court, which could issue a public reprimand or impose more serious consequences.
The Board of Examiners of Court Reporters recommended discipline after Shepard admitted to violating a rule that requires court reporters to be impartial. A hearing in April on whether to keep any punishment private involved a volley of shots from Shepard’s attorney directed toward Keen and Eileen Umbehr, a couple known for their relentless advocacy for Chandler’s release.
The board rejected Shepard’s arguments in a ruling last week, saying the court reporter “should have known that her comments would carry the strength of real or imagined authority because of her official role in the trial and the fact that she had a front-row seat to observe all the evidence.”
Chandler was arrested in 2011 and charged with the murders of her ex-husband, Michael Sisco, and his fiancee, Karen Harkness, who were killed in Topeka in 2002. A jury convicted Chandler in 2012 in a highly publicized trial that was featured on the CBS TV show “48 Hours.”
In 2018, the Kansas Supreme Court overturned the convictions because deputy district attorney Jacqie Spradling led the jury to believe a protection from abuse order was issued to prevent Chandler from stalking Sisco. The abuse order didn’t exist.
Chandler is awaiting retrial in the case. Keen Umbehr, an attorney and former Libertarian candidate for governor, works for Chandler to help her with legal research, but he doesn’t represent Chandler.
In 2016, while the case was under appeal, Shepard entered debate about Chandler’s guilt on Keen Umbehr’s Facebook page. Shepard had changed employment by then from Shawnee to Wyandotte County District Court.
Shepard asserted her role as the court reporter in multiple comments to bolster her opinion that Chandler was guilty and would be convicted again if granted a new trial.
“I’m confident they got the right perpetrator in this case,” Shepard wrote. “Look, I was there, I reported that whole case. I saw firsthand this case.”
In another comment, Shepard acknowledged Spradling “pushed a little too far at times” but maintained Chandler is the “the only one that could have done it.”
“She had a major axe to grind with Karen Harkness and Mike Sisco for she stalked them repeatedly,” Shepard wrote, a reference to the false information Spradling offered at trial.
A complaint against Spradling is pending before the attorney disciplinary board.
Shepard also praised the integrity of Judge Nancy Parrish, who presided over the murder trial and denied multiple motions to recuse herself from the retrial. Parrish eventually relinquished the case because of a scheduled surgery.
James Chappas, the attorney representing Shepard, said public censure would be excessive punishment for Shepard’s comments. The court reporter didn’t resort to namecalling or show malicious intent.
Also important, Chappas said, is “the 800-pound elephant in the room, which is the Dana Chandler case itself.”
Chandler “has a cult following associated with this case, and it is the Umbehr family,” Chappas said. “And you look at their Facebook posts, they hold themselves out as holy warriors. And I’m not making this up. Check it out. They hold themselves out as holy warriors and that God has anointed them to come down and to vindicate Dana Chandler.”
Chappas expressed concern that the Umbehrs would weaponize punishment of Shepard in a smear campaign.
Eileen Umbehr, who attended the hearing, said the couple wasn’t responsible for the ethics complaint against Shepard and had no interest in targeting the court reporter.
The couple hasn’t attended church in more than three decades, Eileen Umbehr said, and they advocate for Chandler out of a belief in doing what is right.
“If you have any faith at all, it is something you should do if you think someone is being railroaded,” Eileen Umbehr said. “He mocked us. He mocked God. He mocked Dana.”
Chappas also has inserted himself into Facebook discussions with the Umbehrs, including a jab at Keen Umbehr’s previous profession as a trash collector.
“Has he been overcome by years of fumes from the back of the gunch truck?” Chappas wrote in one comment.
In another comment, directed to Keen Umbehr, Chappas said: “I don’t care about your opinion on the case and your arrogance to keep pounding FB with it. You may think you are some credit to the legal profession but you are regarded as a nut by most of us.”
Todd Thompson, who investigated Shepard’s comments for the disciplinary board, argued that public reprimand was necessary to serve notice to other court reporters and court staff employees that discretion and impartiality should be taken seriously.
“There’s a bit of an irony here that the reporter is asking for private discipline when it relates to an episode where public comments were made about a pending case,” Thompson said.
The five-member board, including Shawnee County District Judge Evelyn Wilson, recommended public reprimand for Shepard.
“The actions taken by respondent surrounded on particular — and highly publicized — murder trial for which the respondent took the official record,” the board determined. “Shepard’s Facebook comments could not have been more clearly partial against the defendant in that case.”
Doug Weller, a communications specialist for the Kansas Supreme Court, said the court would consider the board’s recommendation during an administrative session without oral arguments.
Discipline could include public reprimand, probation, professional education, suspension of a court reporter’s certificate, or revocation of the certificate.
Eileen Umbehr said Shepherd’s comments about Chandler’s guilt carried more weight because she was speaking as the court reporter who heard and recorded all of the evidence at the 2012 trial.
“These statements from an officer of the court were prejudicial to Dana Chandler and jeopardized the protection of her constitutional right to a fair retrial,” Eileen Umbehr said.