Justices say Kansas court wrongly overturned death sentences

AP News
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Posted: Jan 20, 2016 11:20 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of Kansas officials seeking to reinstate the death penalty for three men, including two brothers convicted in a crime spree known as the "Wichita massacre."

The justices ruled 8-1 that the Kansas Supreme Court was wrong to overturn the sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr, and Sidney Gleason, who was convicted in a separate case.

The state court said juries in both cases should have been told that evidence of the men's troubled childhoods and other factors weighing against a death sentence did not have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The lower court also had ruled that the Carr brothers should have had separate sentencing hearings instead of a joint one.

The Supreme Court said the Kansas court's reasoning was flawed on both counts.

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said there is no requirement to tell jurors in a death sentence case that they can consider a factor favoring the defendant even if it's not proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Jurors were told to consider any mitigating circumstance, even those not found to exist by other members of the jury," Scalia said. "Jurors would not have misunderstood these instructions to prevent their consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence."

The court also ruled that the district court was not required to hold separate a separate sentencing proceeding for each brother. Reginald Carr had argued that his sentence may have been unfairly tainted because Jonathan Carr blamed Reginald for being a bad influence during their childhoods.

"Only the most extravagant speculation would lead one to conclude that the supposedly prejudicial evidence introduced by one brother rendered the sentencing proceeding fundamentally unfair to the other," Scalia said.

Scalia said jurors at the sentencing phase heard plenty of evidence "of how these defendants tortured their victims, acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity described firsthand for the jury by the lone survivor."

Prosecutors in the Carr case said the brothers were responsible for a night of mayhem and murder in 2000 when they broke into a Wichita home and, over the course of several hours, forced the three men and two women there to have sex with each other and later to withdraw money from ATMs.

The women were raped repeatedly before all five were taken to a snow-covered soccer field and shot in the head. One woman survived a gunshot wound to the head after the bullet was deflected by a plastic hair clip.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter, saying the case never should have been taken up by the Supreme Court. She said the Kansas Supreme Court "has overprotected its citizens" and had a right to do so under its interpretation of federal and state laws.

Scalia called Sotomayor's dissent "misdirected" and took a swipe at the Kansas Supreme Court, which has struck down death sentences in several other cases.

"When the Kansas Supreme Court time and again invalidates death sentences because it says the federal Constitution requires it, review by this court, far from undermining state autonomy, is the only possible way to vindicate it," Scalia said.

Gleason was convicted in the February 2004 killing of Mikiala Martinez and Darren Wornkey in Great Bend. Martinez was a potential witness against Gleason in a previous robbery in which he was involved. Wornkey was her boyfriend.