Top Kansas court to revisit death penalty in Wichita murders

In this combination of 2013 photos provided by the Kansas Department of Corrections, is Reginald D. Carr, left, and Jonathan D. Carr. The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday, July 25, 2014 overturned the death sentences of the two brothers convicted of capital murder in a crime spree in Wichita in 2000 including robbery, rape, forced sex and four fatal shootings in a snow-covered soccer field. (AP Photo/Kansas Department of Corrections)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court is considering for a second time whether to spare two brothers from being executed for four murders in what became known as “the Wichita massacre” after earlier rulings in the men’s favor sparked a political backlash.

The justices were hearing arguments from attorneys Thursday in the cases of Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The brothers were convicted of dozens of crimes against five people in December 2000 that ended with the victims being shot in a snow-covered Wichita field, with one woman surviving to testify against the brothers.

The crimes were among the most notorious in the state since the 1959 slayings of a western Kansas family that inspired the book “In Cold Blood.” The state has 10 men on death row, including the Carrs, but it has not executed anyone since hangings in 1965.

The Kansas court overturned the Carr brothers’ death sentences in July 2014, citing flaws in their joint trial and sentencing hearing. The decisions stunned the victims’ families and friends, as well as legislators. Critics launched unsuccessful efforts to oust six of the seven justices in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the Kansas court’s rulings in a sometimes scathing January 2016 opinion. The nation’s highest court returned the men’s cases to the Kansas court for further reviews.

The Carr brothers’ attorneys are raising some of the same legal questions again, arguing that the Kansas Constitution requires the death sentences to be overturned even if the U.S. Constitution doesn’t. The Kansas court has the last word on “state law” issues. There is one new justice since the court last ruled in 2014.

The Kansas court previously concluded that the two men should have had separate sentencing hearings. Jonathan Carr argued that he was not as responsible as his brother for the crimes and that Reginald Carr had been a bad influence on him during their troubled childhoods.

The Kansas court also said the judge’s instructions to jurors during sentencing were flawed.

Prosecutors said the brothers broke into a home in December 2000 and forced the three men and two women there to have sex with each other and later to withdraw money from ATMs. The women were raped repeatedly before all five were taken to a soccer field and shot. The four victims who died were Aaron Sander, 29; Brad Heyka, 27; Jason Befort, 26, and Heather Muller, 25.

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