By John Celock
The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision to end the death penalty in the case of two brothers convicted in one of the state’s most horrific crimes.
The Court ruled 8-1 to restore the death penalty to Reginald and Jonathan Carr, who were convicted in a 2000 crime spree that left five dead. The spree included the torture and sexual assaults of five victims, including four who were murdered in what has been called the “Wichita Massacre.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state Supreme Court’s process for invalidating the death penalty was not in line with the U.S. Constitution. The Court’s ruling included graphic details of the events surrounding the massacre, which the Court described as “acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity.”
Justice Sonya Sotomayor was the only dissenting vote. The decision returns the case back to the state Supreme Court for further deliberation.
The Supreme Court decision also covered the death penalty case of Sidney Gleason, who was convicted of murder.
In the Court’s opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the state Supreme Court’s findings that the death penalty sentence violated the Eighth Amendment because the jury was not told to consider “mitigating circumstances” in the case and that the sentences should have been handled separately and not jointly, was not constitutional. The state Supreme Court’s decision, handed down in September 2014, was met with disbelief by those in Wichita and among the state’s political class.
Scalia wrote that the Court’s decision was made on the state Supreme Court’s decision to rely on the U.S. Constitution to make its ruling to overturn the death penalty for the Carr brothers. He wrote that if the state court had focused solely on state law, the decision could be different.
“For this reason, the criticism leveled by the dissent is
misdirected. It generally would have been ‘none of our
business’ had the Kansas Supreme Court vacated
Gleason’s and the Carrs’ death sentences on state-law
grounds. Marsh, 548 U. S., at 184 (SCALIA, J., concurring).
But it decidedly did not,” Scalia wrote. “And when the Kansas Supreme
Court time and again invalidates death sentences because
it says the Federal Constitution requires it, ‘review by this
Court, far from undermining state autonomy, is the only
possible way to vindicate it.’ Ibid. ‘When we correct a
state court’s federal errors, we return power to the State,
and to its people.’ Ibid. The state courts may experiment
all they want with their own constitutions, and often do in
the wake of this Court’s decisions. See Sutton, San Antonio
Independent School District v. Rodriguez And Its
Aftermath, 94 Va. L. Rev. 1963, 1971–1977 (2008). But
what a state court cannot do is experiment with our Federal
Constitution and expect to elude this Court’s review
so long as victory goes to the criminal defendant. ‘Turning
a blind eye’ in such cases ‘would change the uniform
‘law of the land’ into a crazy quilt.’ Marsh, supra, at 185.
And it would enable state courts to blame the unpopular
death-sentence reprieve of the most horrible criminals
upon the Federal Constitution when it is in fact their own
The Court’s ruling also said that the state Supreme Court’s ruling that the jury instructions had to cover the “mitigating circumstances” to warrant the death penalty could have created “confusion” for the jury. The ruling says that U.S. case law “does not require capital
sentencing courts ‘to affirmatively inform the jury that
mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a
reasonable doubt.’” Scalia wrote in the ruling that the “mitigating circumstances” are a decision left up to each juror.
“The facts justifying death set forth in the Kansas statute either did or did not exist—and one can require the finding that they did exist to be made beyond a reasonable doubt,” Scalia wrote. “Whether mitigation exists, however, is largely a judgment call (or perhaps a value call); what one juror might consider mitigating another might not. And of course the ultimate question whether mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances is mostly a question of mercy—the quality of which, as we know, is not strained.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the argument that the two brothers should have been sentenced separately was not a reason to invalidate the death penalty. Reginald Carr had argued that testimony in the trial that he had “corrupted” his brother influenced the death penalty in his case. Jonathan Carr argued that the jury witnessing his brother being handcuffed influenced his sentencing. In the ruling, the Court ruled this would likely not be the case.
“It is improper to vacate a death sentence based on pure
‘speculation” of fundamental unfairness, ‘rather than
reasoned judgment,’ Romano, supra, at 13–14. Only the
most extravagant speculation would lead to the conclusion
that the supposedly prejudicial evidence rendered the
Carr brothers’ joint sentencing proceeding fundamentally
unfair. It is beyond reason to think that the jury’s death
verdicts were caused by the identification of Reginald as
the “corrupter” or of Jonathan as the “corrupted,” the
jury’s viewing of Reginald’s handcuffs, or the sister’s retracted
statement that Reginald fired the final shots.
None of that mattered,” Scalia wrote. “What these defendants did—acts
of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity—was described
in excruciating detail by (name withheld), who relived with
the jury, for two days, the Wichita Massacre. The joint
sentencing proceedings did not render the sentencing
proceedings fundamentally unfair.”
In her dissent, Sotomayor wrote that she does not see any reason why the U.S. Supreme Court needed to intervene in the Kansas case. She wrote that the decision takes away the right of state courts to rule.
“I respectfully dissent because I do not believe these
cases should ever have been reviewed by the Supreme
Court. I see no reason to intervene in cases like these—
and plenty of reasons not to. Kansas has not violated any
federal constitutional right,” Sotomayor wrote. “If anything, the State has
overprotected its citizens based on its interpretation of
state and federal law. For reasons ably articulated by my
predecessors and colleagues and because I worry that
cases like these prevent States from serving as necessary
laboratories for experimenting with how best to guarantee dissenting
defendants a fair trial, I would dismiss the writs as improvidently
She wrote that the facts are based on Kansas state law and that she does not see the case influencing other states in terms of the death penalty. She disagreed with the Court’s decision saying that it was “not absurd” that a juror not familiar with Kansas law would could be confused by jury instructions that did not go into depth.
Sotomayor also wrote that the joint sentencing decision was Kansas law only and she did not see a reason for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the case.
The Carr brothers were convicted in the December 2000 murders of Ann Walenta, Brad Heyka, Heather Muller, Aaron Sander an Jason Befort. Walenta was shot and later died following an attempted carjacking in a Wichita parking lot. The Carr brothers days later broke into a Wichita home where Heyka, Muller, Sander, Befort and a fifth female victim were sleeping. The fifth victim, whose name has been withheld as the victim of a sex crime, survived. The brothers robbed the five at gunpoint, raped both Muller and the fifth victim and forced the group to perform sex acts on each other. The five were driven to a soccer field and shot in the head. The fifth victim’s hair clip deflected the bullet.
Wednesday’s ruling included a level of detail about the crime that surprised at least one veteran Supreme Court observer.
— Mike Sacks (@MikeSacksEsq) January 20, 2016
The state Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling led to widespread opposition in the Wichita area, including a group of the victim’s families leading a campaign to oppose two of the justices in their retention elections, campaigns the two justices narrowly won.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling brought bipartisan support from Kansas.
“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court honored the victims of the Carr brothers by overturning the shameful decision by the out of touch Kansas Supreme Court,” state Sen. Michael O’Donnell (R-Wichita) told The Celock Report. “I hope and pray the families of the victims will continue to find peace and ultimately gain some closure by having these two men pay for their actions.”
Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, described the Carr brothers case as a “case study of people who violated the norms of humanity.”
“I think the Supreme Court made the right decision,” he said.
Ward said that the facts of the case can “make your skin crawl.”
“It lacks humanity how any human could do that,” Ward told The Celock Report.
Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) told The Celock Report that Wednesday’s decision will help the families of the victims.
“In my opinion the U.S. Supreme Court made the right decision by insuring that the families of the victims will see justice served,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling reignited a debate over the future of the state Supreme Court, with the Kansas Republican Party tweeting out that the court’s justices are picked in part by a nominating commission, the majority of which are lawyers elected by the state bar, with the other four members being picked by the governor. The nominating commission’s recommendations are then given to the governor, who picks a justice. Incumbent justices then face voters statewide in retention elections.
Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and conservative Republicans in the state Legislature have called for amending the state Constitution to allow for the governor to pick a nominee for Senate confirmation, similar to the federal model of picking judges. The move has not passed in the Legislature. Brownback and conservatives have frequently been at odds with the state Supreme Court over education funding.
House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) issued a statement saying that the Court’s decision Wednesday raises questions about the Kansas Supreme Court’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution in the Carr brothers case, noting that eight justices from U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of overruling the state court. He said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling was “another reminder” of changing the Supreme Court selection process in Kansas.
House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report that he sees the Court’s ruling Wednesday as a hit at the state Supreme Court.
“That’s an 8-1 slap at the Kansas Supreme Court, which clearly has no regard for public safety,” he said.
Claeys said that the Carr brothers case and the case of two others on death row in Kansas is costing the state $325,000 in defense fees for the current fiscal year and another $500,000 for the coming fiscal year. He said that the cost comes from the state retaining outside counsel to defend death penalty cases. He said the state Supreme Court should use Wednesday’s ruling to reconsider it’s decisions on the death penalty.
“The state will continue the legal process against these monsters in spite of the Kansas Supreme Court being frequently overturned in their rulings,” Claeys said.