Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced Friday that he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review decisions that overturned death sentences for brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr in the execution-style killings of four people in Wichita in 2000 and for another man convicted of murdering a couple in Great Bend in 2004.
The request follows separate rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court last month that upheld murder convictions for the Carrs and for Sidney Gleason, but vacated their death penalties. Schmidt, in a news release Friday, said he and others “are not convinced” Kansas’ high court correctly applied the federal Constitution in rulings on the men’s appeals, “so we are requesting a review of all three cases.”
“In each case, we doubt the U.S. Constitution compelled the Kansas court to set aside the death sentences that were recommended by juries of the defendants’ peers,” Schmidt said in the release.
Schmidt said his office notified the U.S. Supreme Court of its intent to appeal Friday. The action suspends all hearings in the cases until the Supreme Court decides whether to review them.
A decision could come later this year, Schmidt said in the news release.
In issuing its July 25 decisions in the Carr cases, the court unanimously struck down three of each brother’s four capital murder convictions in the Dec. 15, 2000, shooting deaths of Jason Befort, Brad Heyka, Aaron Sander and Heather Muller as they knelt in a snow-covered soccer field at 29th Street North and Greenwich.
A remaining capital murder conviction for each Carr 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.
Gleason was convicted for the February 2004 murders of a Great Bend woman who had witnessed a robbery he was involved in and of her boyfriend. In response to his appeal, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled July 18 that the judge who presided over Gleason’s trial gave flawed instructions to jurors about weighing evidence in favor of and against recommending a death sentence.
Speaking at a news conference Friday afternoon, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said there are several potential outcomes to Schmidt’s U.S. Supreme Court appeal:
If the nation’s high court declines to hear the attorney general’s appeal, or rules against it, then the Kansas Supreme Court rulings will stand. The Carr brothers’ cases would then be remanded to Sedgwick County for further proceedings. That could possibly include separate retrials of the brothers’ dismissed counts or separate sentencing hearings, or both.
If the Supreme Court upholds the attorney general’s appeal, it could reinstate all or some of the convictions or sentences from the men’s original trials.
But, Bennett said, even if the Kansas Supreme Court decision stands, the Carrs – both in their 30s – remain convicted of murder and a variety of other crimes that will keep them in prison for decades.
“Best case scenario, we’re talking 70, 80 years from now before either would see a parole board, which, you know, is the functional equivalent of life without parole,” Bennett said.
The most important point in the case, he said, is whether the judge created an unfair trial situation on some of the murder counts by trying and sentencing the brothers together, rather than separately.
Prosecutors will argue it didn’t make any difference, Bennett said.
“Our argument would be however you would have tried it, however it was done, the evidence was such that it would have made no functional difference, (that) any jury, however it was empaneled, would have reached the same conclusion,” Bennett said.
“Therefore, if you believe that, there would have been no denial of a fair trial.”
The Kansas court hasn’t upheld a death sentence since the state enacted a new capital punishment law in 1994, and the state’s last legal executions, by hanging, were in 1965. It has another five men on death row.
Bennett noted during his news conference Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice overturned rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court since the state reinstated the death penalty.
In 2006, the High Court upheld Kansas’ death penalty law, which the state Supreme Court had found unconstitutional in the case of double murderer Michael Marsh.
Last year, the High Court reversed a Kansas Supreme Court decision that had overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of Scott Cheever, who killed Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels in 2005.
“That’s not to say third time’s a charm and it will happen again,” Bennett said, “but certainly, I have confidence that they (the attorney general’s office) certainly know what they’re doing.”
Jonathan and Reginald Carr were sentenced to death in 2002 after a jury convicted them of the four soccer-field killings, the felony murder of 55-year-old Linda “Ann” Walenta, and dozens of other crimes including rape and robbery connected to the brothers’ multi-day crime spree across Wichita in December 2000.
Reginald Carr, now 36, and Jonathan Carr, 34, were in their early 20s at the time.
Contributing: The Eagle’s Josh Wood and Associated Press