Supreme Court to hear capital cases roiling Kansas politics
Topeka The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to consider reinstating death sentences for two brothers convicted in the notorious slayings of four people in Kansas, capital cases that roiled the state's politics and have prompted calls to remake its judiciary.
The nation's highest court planned Wednesday to hear the cases of Jonathan and Reginald Carr, sentenced to lethal injection for the killings in Wichita in December 2000. The justices also scheduled arguments in the case of Sidney Gleason, sentenced to die for the 2004 murder of a Great Bend woman and her boyfriend after she witnessed a robbery.
The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the death sentences in all three cases last year, and Attorney General Derek Schmidt's office appealed. Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994 but has yet to execute any convicted murderers since then because the state's highest court hasn't upheld any death sentence. The state's last executions were hangings, in 1965.
Conservative Republicans dominate state politics, but six of the court's seven justices were appointed by Democratic or moderate GOP governors, leading to criticism that it leans to the left and has shown it simply opposes capital punishment. The decisions overturning the Carrs' sentences prompted a campaign by victims' family members that came close to removing two justices last year, an effort endorsed by both GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and the state Republican Party's chairman.
The brothers were sentenced to die for fatally shooting a woman and three men a snow-covered field. They were also convicted of breaking into a home, first forcing the victims to have sex with each other and ordering them to withdraw money from ATMs. A second woman also was in the field and survived, providing eyewitness testimony.
Defense attorneys argued unsuccessfully that the brothers couldn't get a fair trial in Wichita and objected to them having a single, capital-sentencing trial, saying they disagreed about who was most responsible for the crimes. The Kansas justices said the brothers should have had separate sentencing trials. The Carrs remain in prison.
"We, unfortunately, are here in Washington for this trip because of the incorrect decisions made," Amy James, the girlfriend of Brad Heyka, one of the Carrs' victims, said in a phone interview after traveling to the nation's capital Tuesday with seven other victims' family members to watch the arguments. "We're here because we care and want to see justice."
James has been the spokeswoman of a victims' group, Kansans for Justice, which formed weeks before the November 2014 election to persuade voters to oust Kansas Supreme Court Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen. Governors appoint the justices, but voters decide every six years whether to retain them.
Johnson and Rosen were part of the 6-1 majority overturning the Carrs' death sentences and received less than 53 percent of the vote — the lowest percentages since Kansas adopted its current system in 1960. Four other justices in the majority face potential retention votes in November 2016.
James said her group hasn't decided yet whether it will campaign against the four justices, but state GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said he would endorse voting against their retention.
Brownback, a conservative who took office in 2011, has made only one appointment to the court so far. He narrowly won re-election last year and broadcast television ads late in his campaign that criticized "liberal judges" and referenced the Carrs' cases.
"When courts repeatedly create law rather than following the law, the governor believes the judiciary should be accountable to the public for those decisions," Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
The Kansas Bar Association worries about voters basing their decisions about retaining a justice based on rulings in one case or a few, said Jordan Yochim, its executive director.
"It's also important to recognize that the (state) Supreme Court was not ruling on the ugliness of the crime," he said. "You want your courts to be fair and impartial."