In an 8-1 decision announced today, the United States Supreme Court overturned a 2014 Kansas Supreme Court ruling and reinstated the death sentences of three murderers. At issue in the three cases of Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, Kansas v. Reginald Carr, Jr., and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason, was whether the Kansas court’s finding that the state’s standard 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 have affected many death penalty cases across the country.
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 connected 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 proved 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 these circumstances must meet the “reasonable doubt” standard because that standard is not required for mitigating evidence.
In its ruling, the Kansas court announced that the Constitution requires that the jury receive an instruction specifying that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. When the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the Kansas Attorney General’s appeal of that ruling, the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) was invited to join the case. The National District Attorneys Association and the California District Attorneys Association agreed to sign on to the CJLF amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.
In its brief, the Foundation argued that the Constitution does not require the jury instruction announced by the Kansas Supreme Court, and it is unreasonable to assume that a sentencing jury would be confused by the existing instruction.
In the Court’s majority opinion, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “In any event, our case law does not require capital sentencing courts ‘to affirmatively inform the jury that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.’ . . . Jurors would not have misunderstood these (existing) instructions to prevent their consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence.”
The cases involved brutal multiple murders by hardened criminals.
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 night, 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 perform sex acts on each other, then raped the women. They then took the five naked victims to a snow-covered soccer field, forced them to kneel, shot them in the back of the head, and then 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, Sidney Gleason, who was on parole for an attempted murder conviction, and accomplices 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 they should receive death sentences.
On direct appeal, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the guilt of all three murderers, but overturned their death sentences. The state court announced that the state’s standard instructions to capital sentencing juries was unconstitutional and might confuse jurors into voting for a death sentence that they did not believe was warranted.
A decision upholding that ruling would have resulted in challenges to death sentences in several other states which use a similar instruction, including California.
“Today’s decision does not change the law,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. “It confirms what those who properly understand the law—definitely not including a majority of the Kansas Supreme Court —have known all along. Confirmation is important, though, in fighting bogus arguments in the state courts and lower federal courts, and today’s decision is a very important victory for the cause of justice,” he added.
CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.