Courts & Crime

Supreme Court upholds death penalty for Kansas’ Carr brothers

The US Supreme Court in Washington DC, April 24, 2015.
The US Supreme Court in Washington DC, April 24, 2015. McClatchy

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the death sentences imposed on two Kansas brothers convicted of robbing, raping, kidnapping and shooting five people in Wichita in 2000.

In an 8-to-1 decision that united conservatives with liberals, the court ruled that the Kansas Supreme Court wrongfully overturned the sentences of Reginald and Jonathan Carr. The high 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, Kansas, in February 2004.

The case before the 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 had 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 on cruel and unusual punishment.

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.

Their acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity were described in excruciating detail by the sole survivor.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in the majority opinion

“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 Supreme Court also 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 think the cases should have been reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The Carr brothers were convicted and sentenced to death for a seven-day string of crimes in December 2000.

Most infamously, the two men invaded a home in an east-side neighborhood of 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 also 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 survived when the bullet apparently bounced off a plastic hair clip she was wearing.

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.

Reginald Carr, sometimes known as “Big Smoke,” was 23 at the time. Jonathan Carr was 20.

The two brothers were tried jointly. Once convicted, they 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 out some of it.

The same jury-instruction issue 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.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong location for the site of the Wichita crime.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

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