Anger Dominates After Court Overturns Death Penalty For Pair Convicted In Massacre

By John Celock

Kansas lawmakers are expressing shock and anger with the state Supreme Court’s ruling Friday to overturn the death penalty for two brothers convicted in a 2000 case of torturing, sexually assaulting and murdering four young professionals during a Wichita crime spree.

The Supreme Court overturned several convictions for Reginald Carr and Jonathan Carr in the crime spree, that left one other woman dead, another man robbed and a friend of the four murdered alive after being sexually assaulted. The court, which has overturned previous death penalty verdicts, overturned the death penalty for the Carr brothers saying that jury instructions on several of the counts were duplicated, reported, along with the sentencing for both being done at the same time, AP reported.

The Associated Press reported that the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 to vacate the death penalty while voting 4-3 not to overturn the convictions of the two brothers.

The Carr brothers will remain in prison for life as the Supreme Court did not vacate all of the convictions the pair received in the murders of Ann Walenta, Brad Heyka, Heather Muller, Aaron Sander and Jason Befort in December 2000. The crime spree has been dubbed the Wichita Massacre.

“We have a right to defend ourselves against these monsters,” state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report. “They stay on death row far too long and I pray the U.S. Supreme Court overturns this ruling.”

J. Basil Dannebohm, an Ellinwood Republican running unopposed for the state House of Representatives this year, said that reactions he’s hearing from people across the state are strong and against the Supreme Court’s ruling. Dannebohm, a friend of one of the victims, said that the reactions he’s hearing describe the ruling as “ridiculous, flabbergasted, astonished, ashamed.”

“This is injustice for the people of Kansas that they have to waste more time and energy on these monsters,” Dannebohm said.

The nature of the crime has led to the reactions from Kansas leaders and residents, including on social media. The Carr brothers, who had prior criminal records, had first carjacked and robbed 23-year-old Andrew Schreiber at gunpoint, before carjacking Walenta. Wallenta died several days after being shot. Details of the cases are outlined in the Supreme Court rulings for both Reginald and Jonathan Carr.

The brothers broke into a Wichita home where Heyka, Muller, Sander, Befort and a fifth female victim were sleeping on Dec. 14, 2000. The fifth victim, who survived, has had her name withheld as the victim of a sexual assault. The brothers were convicted of robbing the five at gunpoint, raping both Muller and the fifth victim and forcing the group to perform sex acts on each other. All were driven to a soccer field and shot in the head, with the fifth victim’s hair clip deflecting the bullet. The fifth victim would later run naked to a nearby home to seek help.

“What they did to another human being is truly a horrifying act worthy of ending their lives,” Claeys said.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell (R-Wichita) told The Celock Report that residents in the Wichita area are being forced to relive the crimes and are expressing outrage at the court. He noted that former Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston (D), who oversaw the prosecutions had received national recognition for the work her office had done in the case.

“There is absolutely no justification for the state Supreme Court to vacate the death penalty,” O’Donnell said. “Citizens of Sedgwick County and Wichita know that.”

While the death penalty was restored to Kansas in 1994, no executions have been carried out as the Supreme Court has vacated the penalties. O’Donnell noted that reaction to the Carr brothers case had stalled momentum for repealing the death penalty in Kansas.

Dannebohm called the ruling “senseless,” while Rep. Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee) told The Celock Report that everything he has seen shows that “this is a pretty clear cut case.”

“I support the death penalty, if it is used for extreme cases that are beyond a shadow of a doubt and their case fits both criteria,” Hildabrand said.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Carr brothers case is likely to reopen a debate in Kansas over the appointment process for the state Supreme Court. Under the current procedure, the governor appoints justices that are recommended by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission. A majority of commissioners are elected by attorneys around the state with the governor appointing four non-attorney commissioners.

Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and conservatives have sought to change the process to make it similar to the federal judicial selection practice where the governor nominates justices with confirmation by the state Senate. Opponents have argued that Brownback and conservative Republicans who control the Senate are seeking the change in order to have conservatives take over the judicial branch. In 2013, Brownback signed legislation overhauling the selection process for Court of Appeals nominees to the federal model, with a Supreme Court change requiring a constitutional amendment.

Brownback released a statement early Friday evening through his state office saying that he was stunned by the ruling.

“Like all Kansans, I was stunned by today’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the Carr brothers conviction for a particularly brutal and heinous crime,” Brownback said in the statement. “They were convicted by a jury of their peers in front of an elected local judge. Today’s ruling unnecessarily reopens wounds of a tragic moment in Wichita’s history.”

The campaign for Brownback’s Democratic rival in the November election, House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence), did not return a message left for comment on Friday afternoon.

Supporters of the judicial selection change have argued that it would make the judicial branch more accountable. Among the issues that have been cited in the past have been school finance, environmental issues and the death penalty.

“The lack accountability with the current court does add to the urgency of reforming the nominating process,” Claeys said Friday.

The judicial selection debate has become a cornerstone of the current civil war between moderate and conservative Republicans. Democrats have also argued against changing the process.

“I think decisions like this and the continued legal battle against the Holcomb plant are just a few examples that show the Kansas Supreme Court’s emphasis on activism over the law,” Hildabrand said, noting that he could see Friday’s ruling swaying people towards a change.

O’Donnell said that he believes that Friday’s ruling can be an “impetus for changing judicial selection” for the Supreme Court, noting that it would increase accountability. He noted that the justices are showing they are out of touch with their home state.

“This is a pattern that they have shown how out of touch they are with Kansans,” O’Donnell said. “I certainly hopeful and optimistic that the state of Kansas will appeal this decision where a court that outside of Kansas will be more in touch with Kansas.”

While debate over the future of judicial selection and the impact of Friday’s ruling on the issue is likely, Dannebohm said that Kansans should remember the victims and their families.

“They have opened up incredibly painful wounds,” he said of the Supreme Court. “I pray for the victims families and friends.”

This article has been updated to include Brownback’s statement and comments from O’Donnell.