The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with Kansas officials who want to execute two brothers who were involved in a brutal mass killing known as the “Wichita Massacre.”
The court ruled 8 to 1 that the Kansas Supreme Court was wrong to have overturned the death sentences of Reginald and Jonathan Carr for crimes that Justice Antonin Scalia described as including acts of “almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity.”
The justices were reviewing two issues from the Kansas court’s decision: whether the jury received adequate instructions on how to weigh evidence that might lead it to show mercy, and whether the men should have had separate sentencing trials.
Scalia said the Kansas court was wrong about both.
The brothers’ crime spree in the notorious 2000 case culminated in rape, robbery, forced sexual intercourse between the victims and the execution-style shooting of three men and two women. One woman survived when a bullet was deflected by her hair clip, and she walked nude through the snow to find help.
Scalia devoted more than two pages of his 18-page ruling to a detailed recounting of the crime.
Even in a case with such gruesome details, a jury asked to impose the death sentence must weigh aggravating circumstances — which must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by prosecutors — with mitigating factors offered by the defense, such as a troubled childhood or personality disorder.
Those do not have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The Kansas Supreme Court said that because the jury was not explicitly informed of that lesser burden, the death sentences were invalid.
Scalia said that was wrong. “Jurors will accord mercy if they deem it appropriate, and withhold mercy if they do not, which is what our case law was designed to achieve,” he wrote. The ruling also applied to a separate case: Sidney Gleason, who killed two people to cover up a robbery of an elderly man.
Scalia also said sentencing the brothers at the same proceeding did not violate their rights. Each brother had claimed that the jury was prejudiced by facts that could not have been introduced if they had been sentenced separately.
Scalia discounted the argument. “Only the most extravagant speculation would lead to the conclusion that the supposedly prejudicial evidence rendered the Carr brothers’ joint sentencing proceeding fundamentally unfair,” Scalia wrote.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter. She said the court should not have accepted the case, because it did not raise federal issues the Supreme Court needed to decide. “I worry that cases like these prevent states from serving as necessary laboratories for experimenting with how best to guarantee defendants a fair trial,” she wrote.
She suggested that her colleagues stepped in because of the notoriety of the Carr brothers’ crime. “The standard adage teaches that hard cases make bad law,” Sotomayor wrote. “I fear that these cases suggest a corollary: Shocking cases make too much law.”
The case was the first death penalty controversy the court considered after Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote last term that they thought the court should reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty.
But the case of the Carr brothers did not raise such a fundamental question, and both joined in Scalia’s opinion.
The case is Kansas v. Carr.
The court also decided Wednesday that a company may not ask a court to throw out a potential class-action lawsuit simply by offering the lead plaintiff all that he has asked for.
The decision was a narrow win for class-action plaintiffs, who are not used to many wins of any kind at the high court. Had the ruling gone the other way, it would have made it harder to mount such lawsuits, because the defendants could moot the proceeding by removing the plaintiffs one at a time.
“An unaccepted settlement offer has no force,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, even if it would have given the plaintiff all of what he was entitled to receive. Ginsburg wrote for four colleagues; Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome of the case but not Ginsburg’s reasoning.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented and was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
“Federal courts exist to resolve real disputes, not to rule on a plaintiff’s entitlement to relief already there for the taking,” Roberts wrote, adding that “when a plaintiff files suit seeking redress for an alleged injury, and the defendant agrees to fully redress that injury, there is no longer a case or controversy” for courts to decide.
The case had been billed by business interests as one in which the plaintiff refused to take yes for an answer.
In 2006, advertising firm Campbell-Ewald, under contract with the Navy, developed a plan to send text messages to 150,000 adults ages 18 to 24 from an “opt-in” list of cellphone numbers.
But one was sent to Jose Gomez, then 40, who had not consented. “Destined for something big?” it asked. “Do it in the Navy. Get a career. An education. And a chance to serve a greater cause. For a FREE navy video call” and it listed a number.
Gomez sued under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which forbids unwanted solicitations, and styled his suit as a class action.
Campbell-Ewald offered Gomez all the money he could receive under the law, about $1,500 and agreed to pay court costs but not admit liability. When Gomez declined to respond to the offer, Campbell-Ewald asked a court to dismiss the case, saying it was moot.
A district court did just that, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the decision.
“Absent Gomez’s acceptance, Campbell’s settlement offer remained only a proposal, binding neither Campbell nor Gomez,” Ginsburg wrote.
She said the court was not ruling on what would have been a harder case: if the company had deposited the full amount of the claim into an account payable to Gomez and then asked a court to enter judgment for him in that amount.
The case is Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez.