Kansas v. Carr

RESPONDENT:Jonathan and Reginald Carr
LOCATION: Wichita, Kansas

DOCKET NO.: 14-449
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: Kansas Supreme Court

CITATION: 577 US (2016)
GRANTED: Mar 30, 2015
ARGUED: Oct 07, 2015
DECIDED: Jan 20, 2016

Derek Schmidt – for the petitioner in 14-452
Jeffrey T. Green – for the respondent in 14-449
Neal Kumar Katyal – for the respondent in 14-450
Rachel P. Kovner – Assistant Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae
Stephen R. McAllister – Solicitor General of Kansas, for the petitioner
Frederick Liu – for the respondent in 14-450

Facts of the case

In December 2000, brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr committed a series of crimes in Wichita, Kansas, known as “The Wichita Massacre,” which included assault, robbery, rape, and the murder of five people. The Carrs were prosecuted jointly. They moved to sever their cases and argued that being tried jointly would be prejudicial because they intended to mount antagonistic defenses and introduce evidence that would be admissible or non-prejudicial only in separate trials. The trial judge denied the motion, and the Carrs were later jointly convicted on numerous counts and sentenced to death. The jury instructions at the sentencing trial did not state that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

On appeal, the Carrs argued that their Eighth Amendment rights to individualized sentencing were violated both by the trial judge’s refusal to sever their cases and the failure to affirmatively instruct the jury that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The Kansas Supreme Court agreed and reversed the death sentences by holding that the trial judge failed to do the necessary analysis and carefully consider the severance issue. The court also held that the jurors may have been prevented from giving meaningful effect to mitigating evidence because they were not instructed that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the consolidated case,Kansas v. Gleason, Gleason was convicted of capital murder for the killings of several people in connection with a robbery. He was also convicted of pre-meditated murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and criminal possession of a firearm. The jury sentenced Gleason to death for the capital murder charge and a consecutive sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years for the other charges. Gleason appealed his convictions, and the Kansas Supreme Court vacated his conviction of life imprisonment because it was multiplicitous with his death sentence and vacated his death sentence because the jury was not properly instructed on how to consider mitigating circumstances.


(1) Does the Eighth Amendment require that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

(2) Does a trial court’s decision not to sever the sentencing phase of a joint trial violate the defendants’ Eighth Amendment rights to an individualized sentencing determination?

Media for Kansas v. Carr

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument (No. 14-449) – October 07, 2015 in Kansas v. Carr
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument (No. 14-452) – October 07, 2015 in Kansas v. Carr

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 20, 2016 in Kansas v. Carr

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 14-449, Kansas versus Carr and the consolidated cases.

Antonin Scalia:

The last of these consolidated cases is captioned Kansas versus Gleason; the other two, Kansas versus Carr.

Sidney Gleason killed a young woman and her boyfriend to cover up an earlier robbery.

A Kansas jury sentenced him to death.

The other two cases concern brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr, who set out on a crime spree culminating in the notorious Wichita massacre.

On a December night, the brothers forcibly entered a home and tortured the five young men and women inside for three hours.

The five victims after being repeatedly raped, beaten, and forced to have intercourse with one another were taken to a snow-covered field where most of them naked and kneeling side-by-side they were shot in the back of the head execution style.

One of them survived because a hair clip deflected the bullet.

She ran through the snow to a nearby house and lived to testify about what the brothers had done.

A Kansas jury sentenced the Carrs to death for the murders of the four slain victims.

The Kansas Supreme Court vacated all of these death sentences.

The Court held that the mitigating circumstance instruction used in both Gleason’s and the Carr’s sentencing violated the Eighth Amendment.

The Court concluded that jurors might have excluded some mitigating circumstances from their consideration because the instructions failed to state expressly that mitigating factors need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

With respect to the Carr’s death sentences, the Kansas Supreme Court also held that conducting a joint sentencing proceeding rather than a separate proceeding for each defendant violated the Eighth Amendment.

According to the Court, the joint proceeding prevented the jury’s individualized consideration of each defendant because evidence of mitigating circumstances produced by one brother prejudiced the other, and vice versa.

We reverse.

We hold that the Constitution does not require capital sentencing courts to instruct the jury that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt nor was there anything unique about these cases that would require such an instruction to avoid confusion.

Even if we were to assume that it would be unconstitutional to require the defense to prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, there is no likelihood that the juries would have misconstrued the instructions to impose the burden of proof here.

The instructions distinguished between aggravating circumstances which they said the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and mitigating circumstances which the instructions said need only be found to exist by the jury.

Jurors were told to consider any mitigating circumstance even those not found to exist by other members of the jury.

Jurors would not have misunderstood these instructions to prevent their consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence.

We also hold that jointly sentencing the Carrs did not violate the Constitution.

The Kansas Supreme Court wrongly shoehorned what is at bottom, a due process claim, into the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

To evaluate the constitutionality of the joint sentencing proceeding, we instead ask whether the allegedly prejudicial evidence so infected the sentencing proceeding with unfairness as to render the jury’s imposition of the death penalty a denial of due process.

The answer to that question here is unequivocally no.

The trial court instructed the jury to consider each defendant separately and issued separate verdict forums for each.

We presume the jury followed these instructions.

Only the most extravagant speculation could leave one to conclude that the supposedly prejudicial evidence introduced by one brother rendered the sentencing proceeding fundamentally unfair to the other.

Overwhelming the joint sentencing proceeding was evidence of how these defendants tortured their victims, acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity described firsthand for the jury by the lone survivor.

The joint sentencing proceedings comported with the Federal Constitution.

Antonin Scalia:

If the Kansas Supreme Court wishes to upset these death sentences it must blame that action on its own law and not on this Court’s interpretation of the Federal Constitution.

The judgments of the Kansas Supreme Court are reversed.

Justice Sotomayor has filed a dissenting opinion.