By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH, Associated Press
MISSION, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court upheld the death sentences Friday of two brothers who were sentenced in 2002 for four killings known as “the Wichita massacre.”
Jonathan and Reginald Carr argued that a ruling declaring that the state constitution protects access to abortion opened the door to a new legal attack on the death penalty. But the majority disagreed, finding that the brothers received fair trials and affirming their death sentences. One opinion was 160 pages; the other 60 pages.
Prosecutors said the brothers broke into a home in December 2000 and forced the three men and two women there to have sex with one another and later to withdraw money from ATMs. The women were raped repeatedly before all five were taken to a soccer field and shot. Four victims died: Aaron Sander, 29; Brad Heyka, 27; Jason Befort, 26; and Heather Muller, 25. One of the women survived to testify against the Carr brothers. Other crimes over six days left a fifth person dead.
Each of the brothers accused the other of carrying out the crimes.
The Kansas court upheld their convictions in 2014 but overturned their death sentences, concluding that not having separate hearings violated the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision in 2016, returning the case to the Kansas court.
In their latest appeal, the brothers raised questions about the fact that their cases weren't conducted separately when jurors were considering whether the death penalty was warranted. Other issues they raised included the instructions that were given to jurors and how closing arguments were conducted.
Chief Justice Marla Luckert wrote in both opinions that the trial was “riddled by error” and that she was convinced that the threshold had been reached for vacating the brothers’ sentences.
Justice Caleb Stegall affirmed the majority's decision but wrote that he did so with “deep doubts and reluctance." Stegall was the lone dissenter in the 2019 ruling protecting abortion rights and said the opinions in the Carr brothers' cases add “clarity and dreadful effect to the egregious consequences" of that case.
Kansas’ last legal executions were in 1965, by hanging, and the state enacted its current death penalty law in 1994.
Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt described the decision as “an important milestone,” saying it signaled that the brothers are running out of appeal options.
“Although the wheels of justice may turn slowly they do ultimately propel us all forward,” he said, adding that he also also was encouraged that the opinions in the brothers’ cases “limited the effect” of the ruling in the abortion case.