SCOTUS wades into death penalty case in quadruple murder

Kansas brothers' death penalty case could reconfigure capital punishment laws

Reporters from NPR, Washington Post grill Kansas AG Derek Schmidt as he exits SCOTUS Carr hearing on death penalty. (Credit: Chance Seales/Media General)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — The U.S. Supreme Court heard the gruesome quadruple murder case involving brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr on Wednesday.

All nine justices will rule on the constitutionality of the brothers’ joint death sentence, which the Kansas Supreme Court overturned in 2014.

“Solemn” is how Amy James, girlfriend of murder victim Brad Heyka, described the day’s tone.

James said after a 15-year legal battle, she and other loved ones hope the justices will uphold the sentence, sparing families and surviving victims the turmoil of further trials.

The Kansas murder case is the first death penalty appeal heard by the high court since earlier in 2015 when Justices Breyer and Ginsburg indicated their suspicion of capital punishment’s fundamental constitutionality.

Court watchers predicted the Carr case could provide insight into a possible shift in judicial consensus on the death penalty.

However, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who argued the Carr case on Wednesday, says the justices’ demeanor suggested otherwise.

“Questioning from some of the justices who have expressed some reluctance with respect to the death penalty categorically, appeared to be looking for a way not to have to decide at least some of the cases,” Schmidt said.

The Carr brothers are convicted of raping, torturing and shooting five people in Wichita, Kan. – four of whom eventually died.

One woman escaped the murders only after her metal barrette deflected a bullet and she struggled to safety through a snowy soccer field. She later testifying against the Carrs.

Kansas’ attorney general and solicitor general argued the cases before the nine justices, attempting to uphold the brothers’ sentence of death.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett called the atmosphere inside “intense,” with the well-prepared justices asking “pointed questions.”

The judges are sorting out a case well-known in the Midwest for its barbarity and complexities.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of Kansas vacated the death sentences – not the convictions – because of questionable instructions given to the jury and the brothers’ joint penalty phase.

Four SCOTUS justices had to vote to take up the Carr case, suggesting at least half the court had an interest in deciding yet another death penalty case this session.  But experts warn that that doesn’t guarantee a major new ruling.

“There’s been more open debate at the Supreme Court level about the Eighth Amendment than there has been in the past,” says University of Baltimore law professor and Cruel and Unusual author John Bessler, but warns, “it’s really hard to predict how the court would rule in an individual case like this.”

The court’s final opinion will likely take several months to take shape and be made public.

Defense attorneys for the Carr brothers did not return calls for comment.

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