The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday overturned death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr, brothers convicted of murdering five people in one of Wichita’s most notorious crime sprees.
The state’s high court in separate rulings issued Friday unanimously struck down three of each man’s four capital murder convictions in the Dec. 15, 2000, execution-style killings of four people in a snow-covered soccer field. A remaining capital murder conviction for each man was upheld by the court, but the death sentence connected to it was vacated after a 6-1 majority said the district court judge who presided over the brothers’ trial – the late Paul W. Clark – was in error when he refused to hold separate sentencing proceedings for the men.
Justice Nancy Mortiz disagreed with the decision, saying that separate hearings would not have influenced the outcome because witness testimony, the “unusually egregious facts” of the case and evidence against the Carr brothers was so strong.
In overturning the capital murder convictions, the majority said the instructions to jurors had been flawed because the judge tied those capital murder charges to the rape of the surviving victim rather than the deceased ones. The majority also said three of the capital murder charges were duplicates of the first.
The court on Friday also narrowly rejected the brothers’ contention, on a 4-3 vote, that all their convictions should be overturned because they were not given separate trials.
Justices affirmed 25 of Jonathan Carr’s 43 convictions; 32 of Reginald Carr’s 50 convictions were upheld.
The case has been remanded to Sedgwick County District Court for further hearings.
During a news conference held Friday in response to the rulings, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said his office is “committed to upholding the law and ensuring the safety” of Sedgwick County citizens. In response to a question, he told reporters he would seek the death penalty against the brothers a second time.
“The results of the decision by the Supreme Court creates one certainty: Jonathan and Reginald Carr will not be released from prison. The conviction for capital murder for each defendant carries with it a life sentence.”
Under Kansas law, capital murder can be charged under several circumstances, including where a killing is intentional and premeditated and occurs during or after some sex crimes.
Today prosecutors can ask for the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison without parole eligibility. But the no-parole option was not on the books at the time of the Carr brothers’ crimes, Bennett said Friday.
Earlier in the day, Bennett and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued a joint statement saying that they are “carefully reviewing” the opinions and will “work closely together in the coming days and weeks to determine the next steps that must be taken in these cases.”
“All options will be considered,” Bennett and Schmidt said in the statement. “We are committed to seeking justice in this case for the victims, their families and the community.”
The rulings sparked outrage across Kansas after they were handed down around 9:30 a.m. Friday. Gov. Sam Brownback called the brothers’ crimes “brutal and heinous” in a news release and said that the high court’s decisions “unnecessarily reopen the wounds from a tragic moment in Wichita history.”
Brutal crime spree
The brothers were convicted in 2002 of terrorizing, robbing, sexually assaulting, kidnapping and murdering a group of young people on Dec. 15, 2000, as part of a seven-day crime spree across Wichita.
Jason Befort, 26, Brad Heyka, 27, Aaron Sander, 29, and Heather Muller, 25, were killed in an execution-style shooting after being forced to kneel in a frozen soccer field at 29th Street North and Greenwich.
A fifth victim, a 25-year-old woman who was shot in the back of the head and left for dead, survived and ran naked through the snow to a nearby house for help. Her escape tipped off a manhunt for the killers, who were arrested later that day. She later became a key witness at the brothers’ trial.
Jonathan Carr, now 34, and Reginald Carr, 36, were in their 20s when the crimes occurred.
Bennett said in his news conference Friday that both sides can seek appeals to the court’s rulings. He said it was too early to say whether decisions in the cases would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“For anyone who has a sentence vacated you have to have a re-sentencing hearing,” Bennett said. “You just can’t do it with a document. There has to be another hearing where a judge imposes the other sentence.”
It was unclear immediately after the rulings when those hearings would take place. Bennett said the next step for his office would be to read through and study the separate opinions issued in the case. Combined, the documents are nearly 500 pages.
Larry Heyka, the father of murder victim Brad Heyka, expressed disappointment and said he was struggling to make sense of the court’s rulings.
“It seems like it takes a lot of time to get through these things, but we will do whatever it takes,” said Heyka, who is from Council Grove. “Hopefully going forward, we will all understand what these rulings really mean.”
In addition to the capital murder counts, the high court on Friday reversed several rape and attempted rape convictions that the Carrs received for forcing their victims to engage in sex acts with one another before the slayings.
Among other convictions affirmed by the high court Friday for each brother were first-degree felony murder in the Dec. 11, 2000, fatal shooting of 55-year-old Linda “Ann” Walenta during an apparent robbery and carjacking; and attempted first-degree murder, aggravated kidnappings, aggravated robberies and sex crimes tied to the quadruple homicide on Dec. 15.
Jonathan and Reginald Carr were tried and convicted in a joint trial in Sedgwick County District Court in 2002, despite requests to separate their trials. Jurors found Reginald Carr guilty on 50 counts; his brother was convicted of 43.
Both men were given the death penalty on each of the four counts of capital murder. Reginald Carr also was sentenced to one hard-20 life sentence, plus another 471/2 years in prison, according to a news release from the Kansas Judicial Center. Jonathan Carr received one hard-20 life sentence, plus an additional 41 years.
In their appeals to the Kansas Supreme Court, lawyers for the brothers argued that the Carrs should get new, separate trials because they damaged each other’s defenses when they were tried jointly by Judge Clark, who died in 2011. Jonathan Carr’s appellate attorney, Sara Ellen Johnson, said during oral arguments held before the high court on Dec. 17 that Reginald Carr engaged in courtroom “antics” that turned jurors against both brothers during their jury trial.
Lawyers also challenged the constitutionality of the Kansas death penalty law and argued that the district court judge’s decision to seat a pro-death-penalty juror who eventually became foreman tainted the trial. The attorneys also said that the trial should have been moved out of Wichita because of media coverage of the crimes.
In its ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court identified 11 errors made during the sentencing phase of the Carr brothers’ trial, but a majority said that the mistakes combined “pales in comparison to the strength of evidence against the defendants.”