Crime & Courts

What courts did in the Carr brothers case; what's next

Reginald and Jonathan Carr assaulted five people at this house at 12727 Birchwood in December 2000 before taking them to a field and shooting them, execution style.
Reginald and Jonathan Carr assaulted five people at this house at 12727 Birchwood in December 2000 before taking them to a field and shooting them, execution style. File photo

Jonathan and Reginald Carr’s capital murder cases – and the overturning of their death sentences by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2014 – have become the focal point of one effort to oust four justices from the bench this November.

Kansans for Justice says it is dedicated to persuading voters to mark “No” on the retention ballots for Lawton Nuss, Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles. The group contends the justices failed to follow their oaths to uphold Kansas law when they vacated death sentences for the Carrs and other Kansas inmates only to have their rulings reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Family and friends of victims of Reginald and Jonathan Carr gathered outside the Kansas Supreme Court on Wednesday to begin their campaign to oust four justices from the court, which vacated the brothers' death sentences in 2014. The justices are

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Others say overturned death sentences are common when capital punishment laws are new and signal that the court system is functioning as intended.

The complex legal rulings – followed by statements and ads in the campaigns to oust or keep the justices – have led to misconceptions about the case and the Carrs.

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The brothers remain in solitary confinement at El Dorado Correctional Facility, where capital punishment inmates are housed. They’ve been imprisoned since they were convicted in 2002. They remain convicted of most of their crimes.

Here’s an explanation of what the courts did in the Carrs’ criminal cases, as well as some information about what’s next.

The crimes

Brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr were 20 and 23 years old when they murdered five Wichitans and terrorized two others during a nine-day crime spree in December 2000.

In the first of the assaults, Reginald Carr carjacked and robbed a 23-year-old Wichita man at gunpoint on Dec. 7. Four days later, both brothers followed Wichita symphony cellist Linda Ann Walenta home and shot her when she tried to escape; she died about a month later.

The most shocking of their crimes — and the ones that led to their death sentences — were the repeated sexual assaults, robbery, torture and killings of a group of friends on Dec. 14 and 15.

The most shocking of the Carrs’ crimes — and the ones that led to their death sentences — were the repeated sexual assaults, robbery, torture and killings of a group of friends on Dec. 14 and 15.

Jason Befort, 26; Brad Heyka, 27; Aaron Sander, 29; Heather Muller, 25; and a woman known publicly by her initials H.G. were at 12727 Birchwood when the Carrs burst in with handguns and a golf club late on Dec. 14. They demanded the friends strip and perform sex acts on one another, raped the women and then forced the friends to withdraw cash from several ATMs.

After three hours of assault, the Carrs drove the five friends to a snow-covered soccer field near K-96 and Greenwich, ordered them to kneel and shot them all execution-style. The Carrs ran over their bodies with a pickup truck when they left.

H.G. survived because her hair clip deflected the bullet fired at her. She ran naked for more than a mile to a house and called 911.

Authorities arrested the Carrs in Wichita not long after the bodies were found.

Muller was a Wichita State University student, Befort was an Augusta High School teacher, Heyka worked for Koch Industries, and Sander planned to become a priest, according to The Eagle’s news archives.

Muller was a Wichita State University student, Befort was an Augusta High School teacher, Heyka worked for Koch Industries, and Sander planned to become a priest, according to The Eagle’s news archives.

The trial

Prosecutors charged each of the Carrs with a litany of crimes — including four counts of capital murder for killing Befort, Heyka, Muller and Sander — and sought the death penalty.

The brothers went on trial together before a Sedgwick County jury in the two-phase format required in capital punishment trials. In the first part, the jurors convicted the brothers of a total of 93 criminal counts.

In the second part — called the penalty or sentencing phase — jurors unanimously voted to give each Carr four death sentences. They listened for weeks as prosecutors argued and presented evidence in favor of execution. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, asked jurors to be lenient and impose a more merciful sentence of prison.

In addition to the death sentences, the brothers each received life prison sentences plus more than 40 years for their other crimes. The Carrs had asked the presiding judge, the late Paul Clark, to sentence them separately, but the judge refused.

What the Kansas Supreme Court did

In Kansas, death penalty cases receive an automatic review from the Kansas Supreme Court. It’s the first of three types of appeals defendants can use to overturn their convictions and sentences.

The Carrs raised dozens of issues over things they thought were unfair at their trials. Among issues argued were that the brothers should be granted new, separate trials. Attorneys claimed the brothers damaged each other’s defenses during the joint trial; Jonathan Carr’s attorney also contended Reginald Carr’s courtroom “antics” turned jurors against her client.

The attorneys also speculated that jurors may have thrown out evidence favoring a lenient sentence— called mitigating factors — because jury instructions given by the judge were silent about what standard of proof to apply to them. The instructions, however, did tell jurors that prosecutors’ evidence in support of a death sentences — called aggravated factors — must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the appeals in 2013. It handed down its 6-1 ruling in July 2014.

The Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Carrs’ appeals in 2013. It handed down its 6-1 ruling in July 2014.

Although the justices identified 11 errors made during the sentencing phase of the Carr brothers’ trial, a majority said that “pales in comparison to the strength of evidence against the defendants.”

The court upheld 32 of Reginald Carr’s 50 convictions and 25 of Jonathan Carr’s 43 convictions, including one capital murder conviction for each brother.

But it threw out the others, including three of the four capital murder convictions for each, citing errors. Because the capital murder convictions were struck down, the three death sentences tied to them were vacated, too.

The court ended up vacating the fourth death sentence given to each brother amid concerns the Carrs’ constitutional rights had been violated because they were not sentenced by different juries. Justices also said juries should be told what standard of proof to apply to a defendant’s mitigating factors.

93 total convictions handed down by jurors

32 convictions upheld for Reginald Carr

25 upheld for Jonathan Carr

The Kansas Supreme Court sent both cases back to Sedgwick County District Court with orders that the brothers be resentenced.

What the U.S. Supreme Court did

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in August 2014. The high court agreed to look at two issues: whether a joint sentencing is constitutional and whether judges have to tell juries specifically what standard of proof to apply to a defendant’s mitigating factors.

Both issues touch on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In January, three months after hearing oral arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Carrs’ death sentences were wrongly vacated. It reversed the Kansas Supreme Court ruling 8-1.

Three months after hearing oral arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Carrs’ death sentences were wrongly vacated. It reversed the Kansas Supreme Court ruling 8-1.

In its opinion, penned by the late Antonin Scalia, the court rejected arguments that co-defendants should be sentenced separately and said the Constitution doesn’t require a jury instruction that specifies the standard of proof for mitigating factors.

District Attorney Marc Bennett discusses the Supreme Court decision to uphold the death sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr. (Jan. 20, 2016)

Scalia added that directions given to the jury were not unclear, and that individual jurors weighing evidence will accord mercy to a defendant if they deem it appropriate and withhold it if they do not.

The U.S. Supreme Court sent the cases back to the Kansas Supreme Court for further consideration.

What’s next

At some point, the Kansas Supreme Court will again consider the Carrs’ appeals and issue another ruling.

That ruling can’t go against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions about the jury instruction and joint sentencing. It’s possible the justices could strike down the Carrs’ death sentences a second time for other reasons.

If that happens, the U.S. Supreme Court could be asked to review the cases again.

Or, the Kansas Supreme Court could decide to uphold the death sentences, which would end the brothers’ first round of appeals.

It’s unclear when that will happen.

But whatever happens, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said, the Carrs won’t get out of prison.

“We’re still before the Kansas Supreme Court resolving remaining issues,” he said in a recent phone interview.

“We might have to go redo the sentencing phase” for the brothers, which would require empaneling a new jury and calling witnesses back to the stand to testify. But, he said, “affirming the guilty verdicts basically ensured these guys will never get out.”

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker

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