TOPEKA, Kan. - The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday overturned the death sentences of two brothers convicted of killing four friends who were robbed and forced to engage in sex acts before being shot to death and left in a snow-covered field.
The court also struck down three of the four capital murder convictions each against Jonathan and Reginald Carr.
Prosecutors said the brothers broke into a home in December 2000 and forced the five people there to have sex with each other and later to withdraw money from ATMs. Two women were raped repeatedly before all five were taken to a soccer field and shot while they were kneeling. Four of them — 29-year-old Aaron Sander, 27-year-old Brad Heyka, 26-year-old Jason Befort and 25-year-old Heather Muller — died.
One of the women survived a gunshot wound to the head, and she ran naked through the snow to seek help. She became a key witness at the brothers' trial.
The court on Friday ruled 6-1 in overturning the brothers' death sentences because the presiding judge did not hold separate sentencing proceedings for each man. In overturning most of their capital murder convictions, the court majority said the instructions to jurors had been flawed because the judge tied those charges to the rape of the surviving victim, not to the others.
The brothers' cases will return to a lower court for further proceedings.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and several legislators were immediately critical of the decisions, which involved crimes among the most notorious in the state since the 1959 slayings of a family that inspired the book "In Cold Blood."
The legislators said the court signalled that it will never uphold a death sentence, and the governor said he was "stunned."
Heyka's father, Larry Heyka, also expressed disappointment and said he was struggling to make sense of the rulings.
The attorneys who represented the brothers did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said during a news conference that he's not sure whether his office will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he promised to continue pursuing death sentences.
Jonathan Carr, now 34, and Reginald Carr, 36, were in their early 20s when the crimes occurred. Together, they were convicted of 93 counts, including rape, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
The Supreme Court upheld a total of 57 convictions against them. Most of the overturned convictions involved the allegations of forcing their victims to engage in sex acts.
Five other convicted killers remain on death row in Kansas. The state last executed someone in 1965. The current capital punishment law was enacted in 1994, but the state's highest court has yet to approve any death sentences.
Opinions in Reginald Carr's case: http://bit.ly/1rFwzDa
Opinions in Jonathan Carr's case: http://bit.ly/1kfhTbv
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