An official in the courtroom, Chief Judge Meryl Wilson of the Riley County District Court used to officiate something else: basketball.
Wilson, who was recently reappointed to his position by Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss, used to be a Big 8 basketball official while he was an attorney. He handled the whistle for 11 years.
The Division III judge is a native Manhattanite who’s been making calls on criminal and civil cases for Riley County since 1997.
Since then, he said a lot has changed about the way the court does business.
For one thing, Wilson said the district court moved to a docket system, in which several people have hearings at the same time.
The switch was necessary because the volume of cases and the severity of criminal cases have increased, Wilson said. He attributed that to Manhattan’s growing population — which is served by the same number of Riley County’s judges.
“I’d say the first 12 years I was a judge, I think we averaged less than one murder a year but since then, in 2011 we had like five,” he said, adding that there have been several more since 2011.
With Wilson’s years of experience, he’s been a steward of the law for all types of crimes, including two that involved the death penalty. That’s an issue Kansas lawmakers will debate in the upcoming 2014 legislative session.
“Those are very hard cases. There’s a lot that goes into them. There are a lot of special constitutional rights that go into play in the possibility of the government taking someone’s life,” Wilson said.
“They’re just different, there’s nothing like them.”
Both of the people sentenced to death during Wilson’s tenure — Jeffrey Hebert in 2001 for shooting a Clay County sheriff’s deputy and Luis Aguirre in 2009 for killing a woman and her infant son — are still alive, as Kansas hasn’t executed anyone since 1965.
Though the judge said he had his own feelings about the capital murder cases, he said those feelings don’t matter.
“Take any law and say I disagree with it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I think, it’s what the law is.”
Wilson said seeking objectivity isn’t difficult for him, and as long as the law allows him to use his discretion, he will. He said sometimes he wishes he had the ability to use more because every case is different.
“When I have the ability to use my discretion, I feel like I use it and in doing so, I genuinely feel like what I’m doing is the right thing – (even) knowing that it won’t always be the right thing. But I’ve accepted that, knowing that at the time I did my best, and none of us are perfect,” he said.
Wilson said when it’s not the right thing, it’s disappointing.
“I’m going to miss it sometimes. I’m going to put somebody on probation sometime who would maybe pull the wool over my eyes. Or I genuinely thought they could make something of themselves and be successful, but [they] turn right around and prove me wrong,” he said.
Wilson’s reappointment as chief judge is a two-year term.
His judicial retention will be next November with a four-year term at stake.