The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday rejected appeals arguing that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional and that errors in the trial might have spared the brothers from the jury verdict recommending death.
The majority opinions, delivered by Justice Keynen “KJ” Wall Jr., acknowledged a number of errors in the Carrs’ 2002 trial.
But it concluded the evidence presented against the Carrs was so overwhelming the jury would have recommended the death penalty anyway.
“We are convinced there is no reasonable possibility the identified errors, deemed harmless in isolation, cumulatively affected the jury’s ultimate conclusion regarding the weight of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, i.e., the death sentence verdict,” the court wrote in both the Jonathan and Reginald Carr rulings. “To borrow . . . from the United States Supreme Court, given the State’s evidence “[n]one of that mattered. We are satisfied the jury correctly understood its charge and was not swayed by the aggregate impact of these identified (trial) defects.”
“In the final analysis, the State’s aggravation case—which rested entirely on its guilt-phase evidence—was formidable,” the court wrote in its ruling on Reginald Carr. “This evidence overwhelmingly established that defendants knowingly killed more than one person, for the purpose of receiving money or items of monetary value and to prevent arrest or prosecution, and that they did so in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner.”
While concurring with the majority ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty, Chief Justice Marla Luckert dissented on the overall outcome upholding the death-penalty verdict.
“In this appeal, we review a trial riddled by error,” Luckert wrote. “The ultimate question before us is whether there is a reasonable possibility the cumulative effect of all errors might have affected even one juror’s decision to impose the death penalty.
“Given the nature and volume of errors, I cannot eliminate the possibility that at least one juror would have decided mitigating factors or mercy outweighed the aggravating factors put forward as reasons to sentence (Jonathan or Reginald Carr) to death. I therefore dissent from the majority’s determination that these many errors did not affect the jury verdict.”
The Kansas court in 2014 overturned the Carr brothers’ death sentences, which would have left them liable to serving life without parole.
But the state appealed that to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the state court and sent the case back for further proceedings on matters that weren’t addressed in the 2014 ruling.
The original Sedgwick County trial judge, Paul Clark, died in 2011. None of the current Supreme Court justices were in office when the crimes were committed and only three of the seven were on the court in 2014 when it upheld the guilty verdicts but vacated the brothers’ death sentences.
The brothers were sentenced to death for a brutal home invasion in December of 2000 that included robbery, rape, torture and eventually the execution-style murders of four people. It was part of a six-day crime spree that left one other person dead.
On the night of Dec. 14, 2000, the brothers burst into a home and forced five young adults to perform a variety of degrading sexual acts with the brothers and each other. The Carrs also kidnapped the victims, forced them to drain their bank accounts at automatic teller machines, and finally, shot each victim in the head execution-style in a frozen field and ran over the sprawled bodies with a pickup.
Jason Befort, 26; Brad Heyka, 27; Aaron Sander, 29, and Heather Muller, 25, died at the scene. The fifth victim, identified in court by the initials H.G., survived because the bullet was deflected by a hair clip she was wearing.
Grievously wounded, she managed to stagger to a home more than a mile away and alert authorities to what had happened.
The Carr brothers were arrested and later linked to two crimes earlier in the month: the carjacking and robbery of a 23-year-old man and the shooting death of Wichita symphony cellist Linda “Ann” Walenta, 55.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said Friday he has been in contact with H.G. and surviving family members of the other victims.
“I think the simplest way to put what I heard from everybody was relief,” Bennett said. “All of them expressed relief that we are this far along. I think they are certainly pleased with this resolution of this stage and they’re ready to see the next stage proceed, whatever we need to do to get this case resolved once and for all.”
In appeals, Reginald Carr’s defense argued that the penalty phases of the trial should have been held separately because he had to defend himself from both the prosecutors and his brother, who sought to blame him for as much of the crime spree as possible.
Jonathan Carr’s defense also claimed the jury was improperly influenced by the penalty phases being held jointly.
His lawyers argued he didn’t deserve the death penalty because he has mental disabilities brought on by abuse from his brother and others in their family, and that Reginald Carr was the primary actor in the crime.
In a reaction statement, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt applauded the ruling but noted it will still be some time before the death penalty could be carried out.
“This does not mean the litigation in these cases is concluded because the defendants now have the opportunity, under both state and federal law, to seek further judicial review of their cases,” Schmidt said. “But completing these direct appeals is an important milestone in the path toward justice for the horrific crimes these defendants committed and the innocent lives they took.”