Topeka The Kansas Supreme Court ruled 6-1 Friday to vacate the death sentences of two brothers convicted of multiple homicides in Wichita in December 2000.
In two separate opinions, the justices said the district court erred when it refused to separate the sentencing trials of Jonathan and Reginald Carr, who were convicted in a crime spree that came to be known as the "Wichita Massacre."
The decisions mean the court still has not upheld a single death sentence since Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994. Friday's decisions represent the fourth and fifth times the court has overturned death sentences. Two of those decisions were later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Larry Heyka, the father of one of the murder victims, expressed disappointment and said he was struggling to make sense of the court’s rulings.
“It seems like it takes a lot of time to get through these things, but we will do whatever it takes,” said Heyka, who is from Council Grove. “Hopefully going forward, we will all understand what these rulings really mean.”
Attorney General Derek Schmidt said he has not decided how to respond to the Carr decisions.
“All options will be considered," Schmidt said in a news release. "We are committed to seeking justice in this case for the victims, their families and the community.”
Gov. Sam Brownback also issued a statement on the ruling Friday.
“Like all Kansans, I was stunned by today’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the Carr brothers conviction for a particularly brutal and heinous crime," Brownback said. "They were convicted by a jury of their peers in front of an elected local judge. Today’s ruling unnecessarily reopens wounds of a tragic moment in Wichita’s history.”
The Carr brothers were convicted in the execution-style killings of four people on a frozen soccer field on the outskirts of Wichita. The killings occurred after the brothers broke into a home where the five people had gathered, raped and sexually assaulted them while looting the house, then abducted them and drove to various ATM machines to empty out their bank accounts.
The victims were 29-year-old Aaron Sander, 27-year-old Brad Heyka, 26-year-old Jason Befort, and Heather Muller. A fifth victim, identified in court as "H.G." survived the shooting and ran naked through the frozen field to call for help.
The murders were the culmination of a crime spree that lasted several days that also included another homicide in which Linda Ann Walenta was killed. The crimes generated massive media coverage, both in Wichita and nationally.
Both men received four death sentences, in addition to sentences for dozens of other charges.
The bulk of the court's opinion is contained in the 421-page document on Reginald Carr's appeal. In it, the justices were unanimous in reversing three of each defendant's four capital murder convictions due to faulty jury instructions and because some of the charges duplicated the first.
But they split 6-1 on several other key points, including the trial court's decision not to separate the case for the sentencing phase of the trial, its decision not to let the defense challenge one of the jurors for cause; and the question of whether those errors were serious enough to warrant vacating the sentences and remanding the case for new sentencing.
Writing separately, Justice Carol Beier, who is often viewed as perhaps the most liberal of the seven justices, said the cumulative errors were serious enough to overturn all the convictions and remand the entire case back for a new trial.
"The facts of this case are so vivid, the wrongs done to the victims so callously inflicted, that any human cannot help to be tempted by the siren song of retribution," Beier wrote. "The song is what makes this case hard; it robs the sailor of reason. But it is the job of judges to resist making bad law, even when the siren's seductive power is at its height."
Justices Marla Luckert and Lee Johnson joined in that opinion.
But in a sharp dissent, Justice Nancy Moritz, who was recently confirmed for a seat on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said she found no reason to vacate the death sentences. And she shot back at Beier's remarks.
"Justice Beier's separate opinion boldly declares that the majority, in affirming Reginald Carr's convictions, has opted for the easy way out by bowing to public pressure in this high profile case," Moritz wrote. "While it might be satisfying to respond to this harsh and unjustified criticism, I will not waste precious judicial time and resources doing so. Suffice it to say, I feel no pressure or compulsion other than the ever-present compulsion to follow the law rather than my conscience or personal views."
In a separate concurring opinion, Johnson dissented from the majority on the issue of whether "the pretrial publicity in this case did not create the kind of lynch mob mentality that warrants a change of venue."
"This court's history of never reversing a change of venue denial, together with the majority's holding in this case, suggest to me that we have set the bar so high that nothing will suffice short of an actual mob storming the courthouse, carrying burning torches and a rope tied with a hangman's noose," Johnson wrote.
The Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty issued a statement after the ruling, saying it still believes Kansas should abolish capital punishment in favor of a sentence of life without parole, even though its members "continue to be shocked and horrified by the deeds of the Carr brothers."