Kansas v. Gleason, Kansas vs. Carr

In 2004, a Kansas state court convicted Sidney Gleason of capital murder. In the capital sentencing proceeding, the jury received instructions on both aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The jury found that the State proved all four aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt against Gleason, thereby convicting him to the death sentence. The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed Gleason’s conviction, but reversed his death sentence.

The Kansas Supreme Court held that the trial court’s failure to “affirmatively inform the jury that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt” violated the Eighth Amendment. The Respondents argue that the Kansas Supreme Court’s holding is grounded in Kansas’s law, not the Eighth Amendment, and is therefore constitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide “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 in this case, 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.” The Court held oral argument on October 7, 2015. Professor David Dow of the University of Houston Law Center provided commentary here.

Two brothers, Reginald Carr, Jr., and Jonathan Carr, were tried, convicted, and sentenced for a criminal spree collectively committed in December 2000. The Carrs were convicted of felony murder and four capital murders. Both brothers were sentenced to death for the four capital murders.

However, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Reginald Carr and Jonathan Carr’s death sentences due to three constitutional errors in the brothers’ penalty hearings. Most importantly here, the Kansas Supreme Court held that the trial court failed to affirmatively inform the jury that mitigating circumstances do not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of this ambiguity, the Kansas Supreme Court held that the trial court violated the Eighth Amendment.

Accordingly, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide “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; and 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.” The Court held oral argument concerning both brothers’ appeals on October 7, 2015. Professor David Dow of the University of Houston Law Center provided commentary here.

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