The Carr brothers murder case gets trotted out again, this time attacking Kansas judges

Kansas conservatives insist they won’t rest until murderers Jonathan and Reginald Carr are dead and gone.

But how will they live without them?

The Carr brothers, who without doubt committed the most depraved of crimes, have been an invaluable campaigning weapon in Kansas for years. Now they’re being wielded against four Kansas Supreme Court justices whom conservatives have deemed too liberal.

The two men broke into a home in Wichita in December 2000 and sexually tortured five people before driving them to a field, shooting them and running them over with a pickup truck. One of the victims, a 25-year-old woman, survived. A cellist with the Wichita Symphony who was shot in an attempted carjacking with the same gun used in the home invasion became the brothers’ fifth murder victim when she died a few weeks later.

Jonathan and Reginald Carr were locked up within 24 hours of their spree. Since then, politicians have used the fear and revulsion in the wake of their crimes.

The first wave of Carr opportunists tried to link their opponents to a 2000 Kansas law that shortened the supervision time for some parolees. Had that law not been passed, they said, Reginald Carr would have been under state supervision and presumably would not have committed his acts of mayhem. The argument was a stretch, and it fell apart completely once Kansas prison officials fessed up to an employee error that had allowed Reginald Carr to be released from supervision six months sooner than he should have been.

That didn’t stop Republican Phill Kline from linking his Democratic opponent, Paul Morrison, to the Carrs’ crimes during the bitter 2006 race for the attorney general’s seat. Morrison had supported the maligned law when he was Johnson County’s district attorney. Kansas voters, apparently more worried about Kline’s misuse of the attorney general’s office to attack abortion providers than they were about some shadowy alleged connection to the Carr brothers, handed Morrison an easy win.

Fast forward to 2014. Gov. Sam Brownback, facing the humiliating prospect of losing to a Democrat in deep-red Kansas, called on the memory of the Carr brothers — who, thanks to the Kansas Supreme Court, had recently been returned to public consciousness.

In July 2014, the justices decided 6-1 that procedural errors during the sentencing phase of the Carr brothers’ trial should invalidate their death sentences (though not their convictions on multiple counts of murder, which will keep both men locked up forever). The ruling reflected the court’s position that the state’s power to take a life demanded scrupulous standards. But for Kansas Republicans, it was a chance to indulge in some timely fearmongering.

Brownback’s opponent, former Kansas House leader Paul Davis, supported the state’s nonpartisan method of selecting Supreme Court justices. In the warped logic of the governor’s flailing political campaign, this somehow meant that Davis supported leniency for the Carr brothers.

“Paul Davis, endangering the safety of your family,” a mailer from the Kansas Republican Party blared. It included graphic details of the murders in Wichita and accused Davis of “voting to protect judges who are handing down such dangerous rulings.”

Pat McFerron, a GOP pollster, had encouraged Brownback’s campaign to use the Supreme Court’s decision to demonize Davis. “Our polling shows that when voters are informed of Davis’s relationship with the supreme court justices and reminded of that court’s decision to overthrow the conviction and sentencing of the Carr Brothers, they break against Davis by a better than five-to-one ration,” McFerron wrote in a memo to Brownback’s campaign manager.

The matching TV commercial, McFerron added cheerfully, “will cause great consternation and gnashing of teeth in the Davis camp.”

It did, but not just for the intended reason. Davis said he had been friendly with one of the Carr brothers’ victims, Brad Heyka. Brownback’s attempt to exploit the tragedy was “disgraceful,” Davis said.

Disgraceful but not ineffective. Brownback narrowly edged out Davis in November 2014. The gruesome mailer and TV ads portraying Davis as a Carr sympathizer probably didn’t carry the day, but in a close election they undoubtedly played a role.

Early this year, the U.S. Supreme Court threw more fuel on the fire. In an 8-1 opinion, the nation’s highest court ruled that the Kansas court had wrongfully overturned the Carrs’ death sentences. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing shortly before his death, speculated that “a retention election … would not come out favorably for those justices.”

Conservative groups needed no such encouragement from on high. Political operatives inside and outside Kansas already wanted to oust justices Lawton Nuss, Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Beier when they came up for retention this November. (They want to protect a fifth justice, conservative Caleb Stegall.)

These are the jurists who have ruled in favor of adequate financing for Kansas schools and also struck down some of the Legislature’s patently unconstitutional laws on abortion, generating scorn from conservatives. But voters might actually agree with the justices on those issues, so Kansans should expect to have their TV screens and their mailboxes bloodied anew with details of the Carr brothers’ “Wichita massacre.”

Critics can legitimately argue that the Kansas Supreme Court got the Carr brothers case wrong. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted, a couple of technical disagreements in the sentencing phase did not outweigh the fact that the crimes were heinous and the defendants’ guilt clear.

But the ruling in the Carr case is just one of hundreds issued by the justices up for retention. To focus on a single sensational case — or the handful of other death-penalty cases heard by the court — is to ignore the court’s professionalism and the justices’ years of expertise in all areas of law.

One person who isn’t weighing in on the retention election is Brownback. Keenly aware of his own unpopularity with voters, he’s watching from the sidelines. But he has a huge stake in what happens in November. As governor, he would have the final say on a replacement for any justice not retained by voters. He would choose from a pool of candidates selected by a nominating commission, which would be under pressure to recommend conservative candidates.

In that scenario, the Kansas Supreme Court would bear Brownback’s imprint long after he leaves public office in two years. Exactly as conservatives planned it — with help from a couple of politically useful murderers.

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