Victims’ families seek to remake top Kansas court

? A small group of victims’ family members is waging a campaign to remake the Kansas Supreme Court after it overturned the death sentences of two brothers convicted of notorious multiple murders.

The state Republican Party’s chairman and GOP Gov. Sam Brownback last week endorsed efforts by the group, Kansans for Justice, to get voters to remove two of the court’s seven justices in the Nov. 4 election. Brownback, locked in a tight race for re-election, brought further visibility to the cause with a television ad criticizing “liberal judges” over the rulings in the cases of Jonathan and Reginald Carr.

The brothers were sentenced to die for shooting four people in a snow-covered Wichita field in December 2000 after breaking into a home, forcing their victims to have sex with each other and ordering them to withdraw money from ATMs. The two men had a single capital-sentencing trial; among other things, the Supreme Court ruled in July that the brothers’ hearings should have been separate and returned the case to Sedgwick County District Court.

Amy James, the girlfriend of one of the murder victims, Brad Heyka, said the victims’ families were “completely floored.” They’d been frustrated with the Supreme Court since attending its arguments in the cases late last year but 10 of them formed their nonpartisan group just weeks ago.

Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen are on the ballot this year. Governors appoint the court’s members, but every six years, voters determine whether they remain. It’s a yes-or-no ballot issue: Shall the individual justice be retained?

“If you don’t like what the court’s doing, you have a chance to vote no,” said James, a 41-year-old marketing manager in Overland Park who’d been dating Heyka for three years when he was murdered. “What we really want Kansans to understand is that the retention part of the ballot is really important.”

The effort to oust Johnson and Rosen — and prominent Republicans’ endorsement — prompted the League of Women Voters of Kansas, the Kansas Bar Association and other groups representing lawyers to issue a public statement urging voters to review online surveys of attorneys and judges favoring their retention. The statement said retention questions “are not meant to be partisan political contests.”

Johnson and Rosen were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. If they’re ousted, Brownback, a GOP conservative, will name their replacements — his second and third appointments to the court. James, acting as spokesman for Kansans for Justices, said it expects to challenge other justices in 2016.

Jordan Yochim, the Bar Association’s president, said basing a vote on a justice on a single ruling or two decisions is “like conducting someone’s job performance by taking one particular day out of the year.” Jim Robinson, a Wichita attorney who serves as head of the association’s legislative committee, said judges and justices are often required to settle tough legal issues and won’t always be popular.

“We do not want a basketball referee to reverse his call when the crowd boos, for fear it was the booing that influenced the referee,” Robinson said. “And we do not want courts to bend to political criticism and pressure.”

Previously, elections haven’t been much of a threat to justices’ careers. Since the state stopped electing them to the bench in 1960, voters haven’t removed any justice. None has received a “yes” vote of less than 62 percent.

But the lowest margins were recorded in 2010, when the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life waged a “fire Beier” campaign against Justice Carol Beier.

And the Carrs’ crimes were among the most notorious in Kansas since the 1959 slayings of a western Kansas farm family that inspired Truman Capote’s classic book, “In Cold Blood.” The brothers also were sentenced to life in prison for a fifth killing just days before the murders in the field.

Johnson and Rosen noted in a joint email statement that the brothers remain in prison because the court upheld a capital murder conviction for each, as well as convictions for multiple other crimes. They declined to comment further because, “These cases remain pending and may again come before our court.”

Attorney General Derek Schmidt has appealed the rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of reinstating the brothers’ death sentences. James said victims’ families do not want to be forced to relive the crimes in detail in additional court proceedings.

“We’ve really tried to let the court system do what it’s supposed to do,” she said. “We’re speaking out now because it’s just flat-out wrong.”