Wednesday, January 20, 2016
The Supreme Court ruled today in Kansas v. Carr that the Eighth Amendment does not require capital-sentencing courts to instruct juries that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt or that capital defendants who committed a joint crime be sentenced separately.
The ruling reversed a Kansas Supreme Court decision in favor of the criminal defendants.
The 8-1 ruling (Justice Sotomayor in dissent) reflects both the relatively simple questions in the case and the brutality of the crimes (described by Justice Scalia, for the Court, as "acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity")--which made it easy for the Court to conclude that the sentencing proceeding wasn't unfair. (As to the joint sentencing, Justice Scalia wrote that "[i]t is beyond reason to think that" any prejudices that arose in the joint sentencing led to the death sentences: "None of that mattered. What these defendants did--acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity--was described in excruciating detail by [a victim], who relived with the jury, for two days, the Wichita Massacre. The joint sentencing proceedings did not render the sentencing proceedings fundamentally unfair.").
As to the instructions on mitigating evidence, the Court said that the defendants' preferred instruction (that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt) was not only unnecessary under the Eighth Amendment, but would only lead to greater juror confusion in considering mitigation.
As to joint sentencing, the Court said that the Eighth Amendment doesn't require separate sentencing hearings for defendants in the same crime; and in any event, the errors or prejudices that the defendants alleged here couldn't possibly have actually prejudiced them, given the brutality of the crimes.
Justice Sotomayor filed the lone dissent. She argued that the Court shouldn't have taken the case in the first place, and that the Court's ruling could interfere with states' experimentation "with how best to guarantee defendants a fair trial."