(CN) - The Supreme Court held Wednesday that the Eighth Amendment does not require capital sentencing courts to instruct jurors that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
The 8-1 decision the court was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, and stemmed from an earlier decision by the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn the death sentences of three men convicted of murder.
Jonathan and Reginald Carr were convicted for carrying out a murder and sex crime spree in December 2000.
According to the reports in the Topeka Capital-Journal, the brothers invaded the home of three Wichita men, Brad Heyka, Aaron Sander and Jason Befort, and forced all three, and the two women visiting the home, to take off their clothes and engage in various sex acts.
The brothers then raped the two women, and later took each of their five victims to a ATM machine and forced them to withdraw all they could.
The Carrs then drove their still naked victims to a Wichita soccer field, forced them to kneel in the snow, and shot them execution style before running them over with their truck.
All three men and one of the women, Heather Muller, died. The brothers were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.
The Carrs were also convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a woman shot four days before the other killings.
In July 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the Carrs' convictions on one count of capital murder, but reversed their death sentences due to what it said were procedural problems at their trial.
Specifically, the court Kansas Supreme Court found the Carrs' death sentences violated the Eighth Amendment because the trial court failed to affirmatively inform the jury that mitigating circumstances need only be proved to the satisfaction of the individual juror in that juror's sentencing decision and not beyond a reasonable doubt."
Without that instruction, the court said, the jury, "was left to speculate as to the correct burden of proof for mitigating circumstances, and reasonable jurors might have believed they could not consider mitigating circumstances not proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
The Kansas court also held the Carrs' death sentences had to be vacated because of the trial court's failure to sever their sentencing proceedings, thereby violating the brothers' Eighth Amendment right "to an individualized capital sentencing determination."
The third man whose case will be considered by the high court is Sidney Gleason, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the 2004 shooting deaths of a young Great Bend, Kan. couple he feared would tell police of an earlier crime.
At the time of the murders, Gleason was on parole following his conviction of attempted voluntary manslaughter.
As in the case of the Carrs, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld Gleason's convictions, but tossed his death sentence on the grounds that jury instructions may have violated his constitutional rights.
In his petitions for writs of certiorari in each of the cases, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt argued the state Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment holdings conflicted with the decisions of other state courts of last resort, the current law of several states, and possibly, the law and procedures governing federal and U.S. military capital cases.
As he weighed into the issues before the high court, Justice Scalia observed that "[w]hether mitigation exists ... is largely a judgment call ... And of course the ultimate question whether mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances is mostly a question of mercy-the quality of which, as we know, is not strained. "
As a result, he said, if the Supreme Court were to hold that the Constitution requires the mitigating factor determination to be divided into its factual component and its judgmental component and the former being accorded a burden-of-proof instruction, "we doubt whether that would produce anything but jury confusion."
"Ambiguity in capital-sentencing instructions gives rise to constitutional error only if 'there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the challenged instruction in a way that prevents the consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence,'" Scalia wrote, citing Boyde v. California. "The alleged confusion stemming from the jury instructions used at the defendants' sentencings does not clear that bar. A meager "possibility" of confusion is not enough. "
The majority of justice, Scalia said, "reject the Kansas Supreme Court's decision that jurors were 'left to speculate as to the correct burden of proof for mitigating circumstances.'
"For the reasons we have described, no juror would reasonably have speculated that mitigating circumstances must be proved by any particular standard, let alone beyond a reasonable doubt," Scalia said.
He then turned to the contention that the Carrs' joint capital sentencing violated their right to an individualized sentencing determination.
"In light of all the evidence presented at the guilt and penalty phases relevant to the jury's sentencing determination, the contention that the admission of mitigating evidence by one brother could have 'so infected' the jury's consideration of the other's sentence as to amount to a denial of due process is beyond the pale," Scalia wrote. "To begin with, the court instructed the jury that it 'must give separate consideration to each defendant,' that each was 'entitled to have his sentence decided on the evidence and law which is applicable to him,' and that any evidence in the penalty phase 'limited to only one defendant should not be considered by you as to the other defendant.'
"Joint proceedings are not only permissible but are often preferable when the joined defendants' criminal conduct arises out of a single chain of events," Scalia continued. "To forbid joinder in capital-sentencing proceedings would, perversely, increase the odds of 'wanto[n] and freakis[h]' imposition of death sentences. (citing Gregg v. Georgia). Better that two defendants who have together committed the same crimes be placed side-by-side to have their fates determined by a single jury.
"It is improper to vacate a death sentence based on pure 'speculation; of fundamental unfairness, 'rather than reasoned judgment,'" Scalia wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said she did not believe the cases should ever have been reviewed by the Supreme Court.
"I see no reason to intervene in cases like these - and plenty of reasons not to. Kansas has not violated any federal constitutional right," she wrote. "If anything, the State has overprotected its citizens based on its interpretation of state and federal law. For reasons ably articulated by my predecessors and colleagues and because I worry that cases like these prevent States from serving as necessary laboratories for experimenting with how best to guarantee defendants a fair trial, I would dismiss the writs as improvidently granted."
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