The Kansas Supreme Court’s decision overturning the death sentences for Reginald and Jonathan Carr was a tough reminder that the justices’ job is not to be popular but to hold lower courts accountable – a responsibility at its most serious when the issue before the high court is whether the state should end somebody’s life.
The Carrs were convicted and sentenced to death for a two-man crime spree of robbery, home invasion, beatings, kidnappings, sexual assault and execution-style killings in December 2000 that left five dead and Wichita traumatized.
On Friday the high court affirmed 25 of Jonathan Carr’s 43 convictions and 32 of Reginald Carr’s 50 convictions, reversing three of each man’s four capital convictions and vacating their death sentences while remanding the case to Sedgwick County District Court. The justices found fault with, among other things, the jury instructions and the late Judge Paul W. Clark’s refusal to hold separate sentencing proceedings for the men.
It’s hard to see the decision prolong the pain for the surviving victims and the families. When killers like the Carrs catch any kind of break from the courts, frustration and even anger are understandable.
But the irreversible sentence of death should only be carried out when a defendant’s constitutional rights have been scrupulously respected. Just as the First Amendment may be at its most important as it applies to unpopular speech, the Fifth, Eighth and 14th amendments can seem like the only things standing between the worst alleged offenders and mob justice.
The DNA and other evidence against the Carrs remains overwhelming. As Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said Friday, the Carrs still have one capital murder conviction each, carrying a life sentence, and aren’t about to walk free.
Bennett and Attorney General Derek Schmidt are to be credited for measuring their words in reaction to the complicated decisions, which total nearly 500 pages.
Unfortunately, some of their fellow Republicans are calling the high court “activist” and “liberal,” and seizing on the decision as reason to revive proposals to accelerate the appeals process artificially and to rewrite the state constitution to give the governor free rein to choose justices (subject to Kansas Senate confirmation).
That would needlessly eliminate the nonpartisan Supreme Court Nominating Commission, which has insulated the court from politics and safeguarded its independence for half a century. And it would risk turning the high court, which has a duty to fairly and impartially apply the law, into a weather vane guided by public opinion.
Twenty years after Kansas reinstated the death penalty, it’s not surprising that many are weary of the glacial pace of appeals and impatient to see executions begin. But lawmakers should allow for the possibility that the problem isn’t the Supreme Court but the costly law itself.