Crime & Courts

Families of Carr brothers’ victims seek removal of two Kansas Supreme Court justices

Flanked by Justice Eric S. Rosen, left, and Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss, right, Justice Marla J. Luckert questions an attorney for Reginald Carr during a hearing before the Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, in Topeka. The hearing was the first of two held on separate appeals by Carr and his brother Jonathan Carr, who were sentenced to death for the shooting deaths of four people on Dec. 15, 2000, as the victims knelt on a field in Wichita, Kan.
Flanked by Justice Eric S. Rosen, left, and Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss, right, Justice Marla J. Luckert questions an attorney for Reginald Carr during a hearing before the Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, in Topeka. The hearing was the first of two held on separate appeals by Carr and his brother Jonathan Carr, who were sentenced to death for the shooting deaths of four people on Dec. 15, 2000, as the victims knelt on a field in Wichita, Kan. File photo

The experience was excruciating.

Friends and family members of the victims of Jonathan and Reginald Carr had to listen to judges and lawyers bring up all the ugly details of the murders again after 14 years as they sat through the Carrs’ death-penalty appeal hearing before the Kansas Supreme Court in December.

“It was like they were talking about the weather,” said Amy Scott James, who dated Brad Heyka, one of five people killed by the brothers in 2000 in Wichita.

When the hearing was over they they left the room shell-shocked, James said.

“We were very offended just at how they conducted themselves,” she said. “They were very arrogant and very rude at how they treated the people who presented.”

In July, the court rendered its decision: By a 6-1 majority, it overturned the Carrs’ death sentences and struck down three of each man’s four capital murder convictions.

James said Friday that 10 of the victims’ family members have formed an organization opposing the retention of two of the justices who were part of that decision.

Kansans for Justice wants voters to remove justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen from the court in November. Supreme Court justices stand for retention every six years. Johnson and Rosen are the only court members up for retention this year.

“Our family was devastated by the murderous crime spree of the Carr brothers,” Mark Befort, brother of one of the victims, Jason Befort, said in a written statement. “We had to re-live the hideous acts when the Carr brothers were tried two years later.

“Now the Kansas Supreme Court has voted to either eliminate these verdicts or force all of the family members and surviving victims to have to once again re-live those crimes in court, or see these guilty verdicts erased. This is an outrage and we will be fighting from now through November 4 to get Kansans to understand the injustice the Kansas Supreme Court is creating.”

Despite the ruling, prosecutors have said the Carr brothers still face life sentences for the lone capital murder conviction.

“The results of the decision by the Supreme Court creates one certainty: Jonathan and Reginald Carr will not be released from prison,” Sedgwick County District Attorney Mark Bennett said at the time.

Bennett and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued a joint statement that same day saying they would review the opinions and work together “to determine the next steps that must be taken in these cases.”

Rosen, one of the justices, said Friday: “I have been recognized by victims and their families, media covering criminal proceedings, and a variety of organizations, including a former attorney general, for my compassion and sensitivity toward crime victims. At the same time, my colleagues and I have a legal and ethical duty to uphold the constitution and the laws of the state of Kansas, which sometimes are at odds with victims’ or their families’ wishes.”

He said he couldn’t comment further on pending or future matters before the court.

Johnson wasn’t available for comment.

‘Perfect trial’

In their ruling, the majority on the court said they overturned the Carrs’ death sentences because 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.

In overturning the capital murder convictions, they 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.

Justice Nancy Moritz was the lone dissenter.

The court by a 4-3 margin rejected the brothers’ contention that all their convictions should be overturned because they were not given separate trials. The justices affirmed 25 of Jonathan Carr’s 43 convictions; 32 of Reginald Carr’s 50 convictions were upheld.

The court’s ruling sparked outrage around the state.

Four of the victims – Heyka, 27, Jason Befort, 26, Aaron Sander, 29 and Heather Muller, 25 – were killed execution style in a snowy soccer field near K-96 and Greenwich on Dec. 15, 2000. One person survived and testified against the Carrs at their 2002 trial.

The other murder conviction came from the shooting four days earlier of 55-year-old Linda “Ann” Walenta during an apparent robbery and carjacking. She later died from her injuries.

In an interview, Mark Befort said the case could be tried 100 times and the verdicts against the Carrs would be the same, due to all the evidence against them. That is why the court’s decision makes no sense to him, he said.

“You don’t have to have a perfect trial, it just has to be a fair trial, and we gave them a fair trial,” Befort said.

Befort said his two sons were young at the time of the original trial, but are adults now.

“They don’t know any of the details of what they (the victims) actually went through,” he said. “Now, they’re going to get exposed to that stuff, and that really makes me upset.”

James said the move to oust Johnson and Rosen from the court isn’t personal.

“I just do not think they should be on the bench,” she said.

She didn’t know whether the families would campaign against the other justices who voted with the majority as they come up for retention.

“I think we’re just really focusing on the situation as it exists,” she said.

Kansans for Justice has established a website, www.kansansforjustice.com. Family members have posted letters on the site urging voters not to retain the two justices.

Kim Voss, Jason Befort’s sister, referred to the engagement ring she and Befort had picked out for his girlfriend, the lone survivor, a week before the murders.

“That ring ended up stolen and found in Jonathan Carr’s pocket when he was arrested,” Voss wrote in her letter. “To this day, that ring is ‘evidence,’ locked up in a closet should it be needed again. Unfortunately that is what the Supreme Court has ordered 14 years later, two separate trials to parade the evidence in front to two more juries.”

Brad Heyka’s father, Larry, said removing the justices will send a message about what Kansas residents want and deserve from the judicial system.

“We do not need additional trials for the Carr Brothers and suffering and pain from family, friends, and witnesses,” his letter said.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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