Kansans vote to retain justices Lee Johnson, Eric Rosen

Two Kansas Supreme Court justices facing a vote in Tuesday’s election on whether they should be retained held on in statewide election results, although Sedgwick County voters wanted to oust them.

Justices Lee Johnson, 67, of Caldwell and Eric Rosen, 61, of Topeka faced opposition over the court’s decision in a Wichita quadruple homicide.

The final, but unofficial, vote in Sedgwick County, where the crimes occurred, showed the vote to oust Johnson was 53 percent and the vote to get rid of Rosen was 54 percent.

Members of the Kansas Supreme Court face a vote every six years on whether they should be retained. Of the seven justices on the Supreme Court, Johnson and Rosen were the only two standing for retention votes this year.

Since the state adopted merit selection in 1958, apparently there has never been a Kansas Supreme Court justice not retained by voters.

Rosen said he and Johnson “are deeply honored and grateful to the electorate of Kansas for our retention as justices of the Kansas Supreme Court. Of far greater importance than our personal retention is the retention of the court’s independence and continued autonomy in performing its sworn duty to uphold the rule of law in our great state. The court has been, and must remain, uninfluenced by politicization and intimidation.”

Two groups sought to remove the justices from office.

The Kansans for Life Political Action Committee, a pro-life group, urged voters not to retain the two Supreme Court justices.

And Kansans for Justice, a group of relatives and friends of the victims in a 2000 Wichita quadruple homicide, formed an organization urging voters to remove the two justices over their part in the court’s 6-1 vote in July to overturn death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The ruling also struck down three of each man’s four capital-murder convictions.

The ruling drew outrage across the state, although others have defended the ruling, calling it an example of justices having to follow the law no matter how unpopular the decision is.

The group argues that the ruling was “legally flawed,” said Amy Scott James, who dated Brad Heyka, one of five people killed by the two brothers.

James said Kansans for Justice wanted to “send a message to the Kansas Supreme Court that we care and we are watching.”

Tuesday night she said that although the group’s goal of removing the two justices might not be achieved, “we educated voting Kansans about their right to remove justices who do not follow the law.” She said the sizable “no” vote was “an accomplishment with limited time and resources. Some made this political, but it was never political for the families of the Carr brothers’ victims.”

The retention issue resonated with 71-year-old Wichita voter James Prentice, who cast his ballot at Linwood Recreation Center.

“I agree with the people whose daughters and sons got killed by those Carr brothers,” Prentice said Tuesday. “I agree everybody is entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect trial, and that’s what I think they got.”

In a previous interview, Mark Befort, brother of victim Jason Befort, had said the case could be tried 100 times and the verdicts would be the same because of the overwhelming evidence against the Carrs.

“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.

He also said in a written statement: “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.”

Prosecutors have said the Carr brothers still face life sentences for the lone capital murder conviction.

The four victims – Heyka, 27; 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 woman 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 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.

Johnson, a former Court of Appeals judge, was appointed to the Supreme Court in January 2007. Rosen, a former Shawnee County district judge, was appointed in November 2005. Both were appointed by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.

Contributing: Fred Mann of The Eagle

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.