The U. S. Supreme Court will hold oral argument Wednesday to review a 2014 Kansas Supreme Court ruling which overturned the death sentences of three murderers. At issue in the three cases, Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, Kansas v. Reginald Carr, Jr., and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason, is whether the Kansas court’s finding that the state’s standard jury instruction for sentencing juries in death penalty cases violates the United States Constitution. Because similar instructions are used in several other states a decision to uphold the Kansas court’s ruling could affect many death penalty cases.
The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has filed argument in these cases on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association and the California District Attorneys Association to encourage a Supreme Court decision to overturn the Kansas court’s ruling.
The cases, which will be heard together on the jury instruction issue, involve brutal murders.
On December 8, 2000, habitual felon brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr began what would later be known as the Wichita Massacre, with the robbery, kidnapping and aggravated assault of 23-year-old Andrew Schreiber. Three days later they shot Linda Walenta during an attempted robbery. Walenta, a cellist with the Wichita Symphony, was paralyzed by her injury, but able to describe her attackers to police before dying a few days later. At 11:00 p.m. on a snowy December 14, the brothers invaded the home of three men and two female guests, all in their twenties. After ransacking the house, the Carrs forced their victims to undress and made them to perform sex acts on each other, then raped both of the girls. They then took the five naked victims to a snow covered soccer field, forced them to kneel, shot each of them in the back of the head, and drove their truck over the bodies. Miraculously, one of the young women survived to identify her attackers and testify at trial.
On February 12, 2004, Sydney Gleason, Damien Thompson, Ricky Galindo, Brittany Fulton, and Mikiala Martinez robbed a man at his home in Great Bend at knifepoint. After Gleason and Thompson learned that their two female accomplices, Fulton and Martinez, had talked to the police about the robbery, they went to Martinez’s home, shot and killed her boyfriend, and wounded her. They then took her to a rural area where they strangled and shot her to death.
The Carr brothers and Gleason were convicted on overwhelming evidence and sentencing juries unanimously agreed that they should receive death sentences.
On direct appeal, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the guilt of all three murderers but overturned their death sentences. In order for a murderer to be eligible for a death sentence in Kansas, the sentencing jury must find one or more of a specified list of aggravating circumstances occurred in concert with the murder. For example, the rape and murder of the same victim, or the murder of a witness to a crime. Kansas law requires that sentencing juries in capital cases be instructed that they must find that the aggravating circumstances occurred beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury is also instructed that they can consider any mitigating circumstances which may support a sentence other than death, but they are not told that these circumstances must meet the “reasonable doubt” standard, because that standard is not required for mitigating circumstances.
In its ruling, the Kansas court announced that the Constitution requires that the jury receive an instruction specifying that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Kansas Attorney General’s appeal of that ruling, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation was invited to join the case.
Representing its supporters, the National District Attorneys Association, and the California District Attorneys Association, the Foundation has submitted a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief arguing that the Kansas ruling assumes that, without its required instruction, jurors are likely to sentence murderers to death even if they don’t believe it is the appropriate sentence. The Foundation notes that at the trial the same jurors found the defendants guilty of murder and heard all of the brutal details of the crime. It borders on the absurd to assume that the jurors at the sentencing hearing would fail to seriously consider both the aggravating and mitigating circumstances because they did not receive an instruction on the lower standard allowed for mitigating evidence.
“Jurors unanimously agreed to give the murderers in these cases the sentences they deserved and nothing in the Constitution requires reversing their verdicts on the type of flimsy reasoning advanced by the Kansas Supreme Court,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.
CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.