The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday overturned the death sentences of two brothers convicted of killing four friends who were robbed and forced to engage in sex acts before being shot to death and left in a snow-covered Wichita field.
The court also struck down three of the four capital murder convictions each against Jonathan and Reginald Carr, citing procedural problems at the brothers' joint trial for its decisions. It upheld one capital murder conviction for each of them.
Prosecutors said the brothers broke into a Wichita home in December 2000 and forced the five people there to have sex with each other and later to withdraw money from ATMs. Two women were raped repeatedly before all five were taken to a soccer field and shot while they were kneeling. Four of them — 29-year-old Aaron Sander, 27-year-old Brad Heyka, 26-year-old Jason Befort and 25-year-old Heather Muller — died.
One of the women survived a gunshot wound to the head and she ran naked through the snow to seek help. She became a key witness at the brothers' trial on the capital murder convictions.
The killings ended a series of crimes that authorities alleged the Carr brothers committed over nine days in December 2000.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in overturning the Carr brothers' death sentences because the presiding judge did not hold separate sentencing proceedings for each man. In overturning most of their capital murder convictions, the majority said the instructions to jurors had been flawed because the judge tied those charges to the rape of the surviving victim, not the deceased ones.
The brothers' cases will return to Sedgwick County District Court for further proceedings
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and several GOP legislators were immediately critical of the decisions, which involved crimes that were among the most notorious in the state since the 1959 slayings of a western Kansas family that inspired the book "In Cold Blood." The legislators said the ruling shows the court's unwillingness to uphold a death sentence, and the governor said he was "stunned."
"They were convicted by a jury of their peers in front of an elected local judge," Brownback said in a statement. "Today's ruling unnecessarily reopens wounds of a tragic moment in Wichita's history."
Heyka's father, Larry Heyka, also expressed disappointment and said he was struggling to make sense of the rulings, which totaled nearly 480 pages.
"Hopefully going forward, we will all understand what these rulings really mean," said Heyka, who is from Council Grove.
Attorneys for the brothers did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said he's not sure whether his office will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he promised to continue pursuing death sentences.
Jonathan Carr, now 34, and Reginald Carr, 36, were in their early 20s when the crimes occurred. Together, they were convicted of 93 counts, including rape, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
The state Supreme Court upheld a total of 57 convictions against them. Most of the overturned convictions involved the allegations of forcing their victims to engage in sex acts.
Five other convicted killers remain on death row in Kansas. The state Supreme Court last week overturned the death sentence of Sidney Gleason in the killings of a Great Bend couple in 2004.
Kansas last executed someone in 1965, by hanging. The current capital punishment law was enacted in 1994, but the state's highest court has yet to approve any death sentences.
Opinions in Reginald Carr's case: http://bit.ly/1rFwzDa
Opinions in Jonathan Carr's case: http://bit.ly/1kfhTbv
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