One of Wichita’s most notorious multiple-murder cases is back in the hands of the Kansas Supreme Court after the nation’s high court on Wednesday ruled that the death sentences for brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr were wrongfully overturned.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, in a news conference after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling was released, said the case had been remanded for further consideration by the state Supreme Court.
The Carrs’ appellate attorneys, he said, will now have a chance to make additional legal arguments in the case. They then will pursue what’s often known as “collateral attacks,” which question other aspects of the case, such as whether a defense attorney effectively represented a client, he said.
Bennett said Wednesday’s decision reinforces prosecutors’ contention that the brothers received a fair trial, including the judge’s refusal to split their sentencing proceedings – complaints that were at the center of the Carrs’ appeals.
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“Those issues have been resolved, so this is a significant event in the course of the Carr brothers’ cases,” said Bennett, whose office under then-District Attorney Nola Foulston prosecuted the cases and worked with Kansas Attorney Derek Schmidt’s office on the appeal.
Bennett also called the ruling “a fairly momentous occasion in the annals of Wichita’s criminal history.”
The U.S. Supreme Court “came down in a fashion that’s consistent with the state’s position on this case, and that is that the appropriate sentence was handed down by a panel of citizens from this community many years ago,” he said.
The case before the U.S. Supreme Court had focused on whether the trial judge left jurors confused over what standard of proof applied to the mitigating circumstances presented during sentencing by the Carrs’ defense attorneys.
The other issue was whether the judge erred in refusing to sever the sentencing proceedings so that each brother would receive his own hearing.
Both issues touch on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
“Justice was served today in the United States Supreme Court,” Schmidt’s office said in an e-mailed statement.
Gov. Sam Brownback, in an e-mailed statement, praised prosecutors and others for their work on the case, saying he is “pleased the victims and families no longer face the horror of reliving these terrible acts through a retrial.”
He also used the Supreme Court decision to renew his call to legislators to send voters a proposed state constitutional amendment to end the current system of selecting justices for the Kansas Supreme Court. Currently, a panel of five lawyers elected by the state’s licensed attorneys and four lay members selected by the governor recommend three finalists to the governor, who makes the selection.
The Carrs were convicted of robbing, raping, kidnapping and shooting five people – four of whom died – in Wichita in 2000. The brothers were sentenced to death in 2002.
The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the Carrs’ death sentences and vacated all but one of the capital murder convictions for each brother in 2014, saying jurors should have been told that defense evidence weighted against a death sentence did not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that the brothers should have had separate sentencing hearings instead of a joint one.
Wednesday’s ruling found that the Constitution didn’t require the severance of the Carrs’ joint sentencing proceedings. Nor, the ruling found, did the Constitution require capital-sentencing courts to instruct a jury that mitigating circumstances don’t have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Only the most extravagant speculation would lead to the conclusion that any supposedly prejudicial evidence rendered the Carr brothers’ joint sentencing proceeding fundamentally unfair when their acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity were described in excruciating detail by the sole survivor, who, for two days, relived the Wichita Massacre with the jury,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the ruling.
The U.S. Supreme Court also upheld the death sentence of Sidney Gleason for killing a couple to cover up the robbery of an elderly man in Great Bend in February 2004. It rejected Gleason’s argument that it lacked jurisdiction to hear his case.
The sole dissenting opinion came from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said she did not believe the cases should have been reviewed by the Supreme Court.
‘A good day’
Bennett said after receiving word of the ruling that his office contacted the families of the late Wichita Police Lt. Ken Landwehr, who led the homicide investigation, and the late Judge Paul Clark, who presided over the Carrs’ trial, as well as relatives of the Carrs’ victims to share the news.
“The relief those families must have felt to get this was palpable,” Bennett said, adding that the ruling also means the sole survivor of the attack, a woman referred to publicly by her initials, H.G., won’t have to testify at a re-sentencing proceeding.
“If she doesn’t have to come back to testify, that’s a good day for Wichita,” he said.
It remains unclear when and whether the Carrs’ death sentences will be imposed. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling is a part of the first of three different types of appeals the brothers can pursue. The direct appeal, the first type, addresses only the legal or constitutional issues stemming from the trial itself.
Any of the other appeals – ones that question issues such as attorney conduct and challenges to incarceration – also can result in a court vacating their death sentences.
The Carr brothers were convicted and sentenced to death for a seven-day string of crimes in December 2000.
Most infamously – and the crime that led to their death sentences – the two men invaded a home in east Wichita. There, over the course of about three hours, they forced three men to have sex with two women. They compelled the two women to have sex with each other. Jonathan Carr raped one woman and attempted to rape the other. Reginald Carr raped one of the women.
The Carrs then drove the five victims to a soccer field and forced them to kneel in the snow. One of the Carr brothers shot each victim in the back of the head. The state never definitively established the identity of the shooter.
Killed were Jason Befort, 26; Brad Heyka, 27; Aaron Sander, 29; and Heather Muller, 25. The fifth victim, H.G., survived when the bullet apparently bounced off a plastic hair clip she was wearing.
Reginald Carr was 23 at the time. Jonathan Carr was 20. They are now 38 and 35.
The two brothers were tried jointly. Once convicted, they also faced a joint sentencing phase even though they asked the judge to sever the proceedings.
Both brothers presented mitigating evidence that their terrifying childhood had been rife with physical, sexual and drug abuse, with Jonathan Carr presenting additional evidence that his older brother had been a corrupting influence.
The judge did not specifically inform jurors that they did not have to hold the mitigating evidence to the same beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard required of the prosecution’s evidence at trial. Defense attorneys say that raises the possibility that jurors mistakenly applied a higher standard to the mitigating evidence and so potentially threw some of it out.
The same jury instruction issue also arose in Gleason’s case.
Since the Carr brothers were tried, Kansas has changed its procedures to require explicit jury instructions.
In her dissent, Sotomayor questioned why the Supreme Court needed to hear the case.
“I see no reason to intervene in cases like these – and plenty of reasons not to,” she wrote in her dissent. “Kansas has not violated any federal constitutional right. If anything, the State has overprotected its citizens based on its interpretation of state and federal law.”
She added, “I worry that cases like these prevent States from serving as necessary laboratories for experimenting with how best to guarantee defendants a fair trial.”
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle; Michael Doyle and Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau