Kansas v. Carr

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Kansas v. Carr.


This case will be heard along side Kansas v. Gleason (14-552). Read our preview here.

Is a joint capital sentencing proceeding between two brothers sufficiently prejudicial to require severance, and must a jury contemplating capital punishment be instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?”

Oral argument: 
October 7, 2015
Court below: 

The Supreme Court will determine whether a joint capital-sentencing proceeding between two brothers and a jury instruction that does not affirmatively state mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt” violate the Eighth Amendment. Kansas argues that the circumstances did not require severing the penalty hearings given the jury instruction and interrelated nature of the Carrs’ upbringing, and there is no affirmative duty to instruct juries that mitigating circumstances need not meet any particular burden of proof. Jonathan and Reginald Carr argue that severance was required because the sentencing proceeding was prejudicial, and the jury instructions were misleading and prevented the jury from properly weighing the mitigating circumstances. The Court’s ruling will likely affect the severance standard used in multi-defendant capital punishment cases and how jurors are instructed in such cases.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

  1. Whether the trial court’s decision not to sever the sentencing phase of the co-defendant brothers’ trial here—a decision that comports with the traditional approach preferring joinder in circumstances like this—violated an Eighth Amendment right to an “individualized sentencing” determination and was not harmless in any event?
  2. Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Kansas Supreme Court held here, or instead whether the Eighth Amendment is satisfied by instructions that, in context, make clear that each juror must individually assess and weigh any mitigating circumstances?


Brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr were found guilty of committing several violent crimes, including capital murder, stemming from three incidents that occurred in December 2000 in Wichita, Kansas. In the first incident, the Carrs carjacked Andrew Schreiber, forced him to withdraw money from his bank account, and then struck him in the head, flattened his tires, and deserted him. A few days later, one of the brothers pointed a gun at Linda Ann Walenta through her car window and shot her as she attempted to drive away. Walenta died from her injuries shortly thereafter. Finally, the Carrs invaded a home with three male and two female occupants. The Carrs proceeded to rape the women and force the occupants to perform various sexual acts with each other. Later, the Carrs murdered all but one of the occupants.

At trial, the Carrs were found guilty of, among other charges, four counts of capital murder arising from the home invasion. Following the guilty findings, the court conducted combined penalty proceedings, as Kansas sought a death sentence for each brother. The Carrs moved to sever the penalty proceedings, but the motion was denied. Under Kansas law, a death sentence in capital cases requires the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of aggravating circumstances and, if such circumstances exist, that no mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances. During the proceedings, Kansas alleged four aggravating circumstances, including the defendants’ financial motive for committing the crimes and the gruesome way in which the crimes were committed. The Carrs claimed several mitigating factors, including the brothers’ turbulent childhoods, Jonathan’s suicide attempts, various incidents of sexual abuse against both brothers, and a history of drug and alcohol abuse by both brothers. Much of the Carrs’ evidence involved the brothers’ shared experiences. After evidence was presented, the court instructed the jurors to weigh all of the evidence and to make an independent determination for each brother. The court did not provide any instruction on the burden of proof for mitigating circumstances.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Kansas reversed several of the guilty charges against the brothers, including three of the four capital convictions. Although the court affirmed one capital conviction, it found that the lower court erred in failing to sever the penalty hearings because prejudice could not be avoided. The court therefore ordered a new penalty phase hearing only on the remaining capital murder charge. The court also found that the lower court had erred in failing to instruct the jurors that the mitigating circumstances did not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Subsequently, Kansas appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.


In this case, the Supreme Court will consider whether the Eighth Amendment requires severance in a joint capital-sentencing proceeding where the co-defendants are brothers. Kansas contends that the joint sentencing phase violated neither Jonathan’s nor Reginald’s Eighth Amendment rights, and that they did not meet the high standard of demonstrating actual and substantial prejudice took place during the joint sentencing phase. Jonathan and Reginald Carr separately contend that the trial court’s decision to forgo severing their trial at the sentencing phase deprived each defendant of a non-prejudicial, individualized determination of the appropriateness of capital punishment.

Additionally, the Court will determine whether the Eighth Amendment requires courts to affirmatively instruct a capital-sentencing jury that mitigating evidence does not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Kansas asserts that the jury instruction was constitutional because it explicitly instructed the jury to give the mitigating evidence separately presented by Jonathan and Reginald Carr individualized consideration in determining sentencing. Jonathan and Reginald Carr each counter that the jury instructions failed to adequately convey to the jury that the traditional standard of beyond a reasonable doubt did not apply to the jury’s consideration of mitigating evidence, which resulted in a reasonable likelihood that the jury misinterpreted the instructions.


Kansas argues that, contrary to the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling, the Eighth Amendment does not create a per se right to severance in order to accommodate a defendant’s right to individualized sentencing. Rather, Kansas claims that trial judges have the discretionary power to determine whether severance of the sentencing phase is appropriate. Moreover, Kansas maintains that the criminal justice system has a long-standing preference for the joinder of criminal trials due to tactical considerations, consistency of verdicts, and efficacy of evidence presentation, among other factors. Additionally, Kansas contends that a joint sentencing phase is generally proper unless a defendant can meet the extremely high standard of demonstrating compelling, specific, and actual prejudice by the jury during sentencing. Kansas maintains that neither Carr is capable of meeting such a standard due to the overlapping nature of the behavioral, familial, and physical evidence presented. Furthermore, Kansas asserts that the trial court eliminated any potential prejudice to the Carrs by providing explicit instructions to consider the evidence presented for and against each defendant individually, and by providing the jury with separate verdict forms. Finally, Kansas claims that evidence presented against both each Carr overwhelmingly justifies the capital punishment convictions.

But Jonathan Carr contends that the standard for assessing severance in a capital-sentencing phase should be one of a reasonable risk of prejudice to the defendant due to the life-or-death consequences of the decision. However, Jonathan asserts that he is able to meet the higher standard of a serious risk of jury prejudice because the court included evidence at the joint trial that would be inadmissible in separate trials. Jonathan claims that both Reginald Carr’s unconcealed handcuffs, indicating that Reginald was a danger to the community, and expert testimony, identifying Reginald as a dangerous sociopath, likely resulted in the jury imputing these unfavorable characteristics onto Jonathan. As a result of the joint sentencing phase, Jonathan Carr argues that his defense was prejudicially compromised and the jury was incapable of considering his mitigating evidence.

Reginald Carr also asserts that the joint sentencing phase created a substantial risk of skewing the jury’s weighing process, which he maintains resulted in an arbitrary imposition of the death penalty. Reginald argues that Jonathan’s presentation of mitigating evidence, which included testimony suggesting that Reginald was a negative influence, tended to make Reginald appear more culpable. Reginald contends that the jury was incapable of considering each brother individually because evidence that was mitigating for Jonathan was prejudicial to Reginald and was, therefore, biased in a manner that would not have occurred had sentencing been severed.


Kansas asserts that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment does not require a capital-sentencing jury to be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, Kansas argues that a capital-sentencing jury need only be instructed to consider any mitigating evidence presented to fulfill the requirements of the Eighth Amendment. Kansas points to three factors outlined by the Supreme Court in Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370 (1990), to determine whether a jury interpreted the instructions as preventing the consideration of mitigating evidence: (1) the language of the instructions, (2) the actual evidence presented, and (3) the arguments of counsel. Based on these factors, Kansas argues that (1) the instructions did not impose any burden of a proof on either Carr to prove mitigating evidence, (2) Kansas did not contest the presentation of the majority of either Carr’s mitigating evidence, and (3) in closing statements, the counsel for each party emphasized that the jury should consider mitigating evidence on an individual basis. Kansas concludes that it is unlikely that the jury incorrectly applied the instruction to prevent the consideration of mitigating evidence and, as a result, there was no constitutional error.

Jonathan Carr disputes Kansas’ assertion that there was no constitutional error with respect to the instructions presented to the jury. Jonathan emphasizes that the jury instructions failed to explicitly state that the mitigation evidence was not required to be held to the same beyond a reasonable doubt standard as Kansas’s presentation of aggravating circumstances. As a result, Jonathan argues that the vague instructions created a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied a higher standard of proof than required for establishing the existence of mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase.

Reginald Carr further argues that the ambiguous jury instructions resulted in both Jonathan and Reginald Carr having to prove their mitigating evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, which he contends is in contradiction to the Eighth Amendment. Reginald claims that jury instructions may not prohibit jurors from providing meaningful weight to any mitigating evidence that may favor a sentence of life over death. Reginald argues that the application of the beyond a reasonable doubt standard to mitigating evidence works such a prohibition and contradicts the purpose of the standard, which is applied to aggravating circumstances in order to favor defendants. Furthermore, Reginald claims that vague instructions which fail to clearly articulate the standard for judging mitigating evidence will cause arbitrary, unequal application of different standards. Reginald concludes that juror confusion may result in the potentially random application of capital punishment and would, therefore, be in direct violation of the Eighth Amendment.


In this case, the Supreme Court will examine the scope of Eighth Amendment protections available to defendants in capital-sentencing proceedings. Kansas argues that a joint sentencing proceeding between brothers is not prejudicial and that a court is not required to affirmatively instruct jurors that mitigating evidence need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The Carrs argue that the joint sentencing proceeding was prejudicial and therefore required severance, and that the jury was not given sufficient instruction to properly weigh mitigating circumstances against aggravating circumstances in determining each defendant’s sentence.


Kansas and supporting amici contend that although a joint trial should be severed if it is prejudicial to one party, the court did not err in failing to sever the penalty phase hearings in this case because the hearings satisfied the usual reasons for holding joint proceedings and were not prejudicial toward either defendant. The United States, in support of Kansas, argues that a joint trial can in fact enhance the jurors’ ability to make an appropriate decision given that more information about the crime is usually available in a joint trial. Additionally, the United States argues that appropriately joining trials prevents inconsistent verdicts, and such trials should be pursued whenever the parties will not have their trial rights violated. Generally, the United States believes that permitting joint trials, including penalty hearings, is often in the best interests of the fair and efficient administration of justice.

Conversely, the Promise of Justice Initiative (“PJI”), as amicus in support of the Carrs, asserts that “evolving standards of human decency” should lead the Court to require severance in this and similar cases. PJI found that defendants who commit criminal acts often have disadvantaged backgrounds or social and mental problems and therefore may be less culpable than other defendants. Accordingly, PJI contends that separate trials may be necessary to ensure that the appropriate weight is given to mitigating factors that warrant leniency. PJI also asserts that joint trials do not lead to fairer, more accurate outcomes. PJI instead contends that joint trials encourage a consistent verdict that is not based on the actual moral culpability of the individual defendants, which the jury is supposed to determine.


The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, National District Attorneys Association, and California District Attorneys Association (collectively “CJLF”), in support of Kansas, assert that the court should adopt a new standard for evaluating jury instructions. CJLF argues that the court should adopt a “reasonable likelihood” test, whereby the jury should be presumed to apply an ambiguous instruction “in accordance with common sense and a just result.” Accordingly, CJLF claims, an instruction that failed to specifically indicate the burden for mitigating circumstances would be presumed sufficient where the instruction met the minimum requirements of the law and did not contradict common sense.

On the other hand, the Carrs assert that the court should adopt a formal requirement for jury instructions in capital penalty proceedings. Reginald Carr argues that an instruction implying mitigating evidence need be proven beyond a reasonable doubt prevents a jury from giving the evidence meaningful effect and appropriately applying leniency. Such an implied instruction, according to Reginald Carr, will diminish the usefulness of witness testimony from witnesses who have intimate relationships with defendants due to accusations of bias.


The Supreme Court will consider whether the Eighth Amendment requires severance in a joint capital-sentencing proceeding where the co-defendants are brothers, and whether juries should be affirmatively instructed that mitigating evidence need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Kansas argues that the Carrs failed to meet the extremely high standard of demonstrating prejudice at their joint sentencing, and the jury was provided with sufficient instructions to give each defendant an individualized evaluation of the mitigating evidence presented for each. Conversely, the Carrs argue that the joint proceeding exposed them to a substantial risk of prejudice and the jurors were likely confused with the standard of proof they were to apply to the mitigating evidence presented. The Court’s ruling will provide guidance on the applicable severance standards in multi-defendant capital-sentencing proceedings as well as the thoroughness of jury instruction required in such cases.

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