The Supreme Court eased the burden for prosecutors seeking the death penalty yesterday, throwing out state court rulings intended to make sure jurors properly considered evidence defense lawyers introduce to argue against a defendant's execution, the Wall Street Journal reports. The issue came from Kansas, where a 2001 state supreme court ruling required trial judges to tell jurors that mitigating evidence need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury instructions were omitted at trials for brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, who were convicted of mass murder, rape and kidnapping in what was dubbed the Wichita Massacre.
The trial judge told jurors at a sentencing hearing that it was the prosecution's burden to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that “aggravating circumstances” justify death and “are not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances.” That instruction led the Kansas Supreme Court in 2014 to reverse the Carrs' sentences, along with that of Sidney Gleason, convicted of unrelated murders. The court found jurors might be misled to believe the defense must also pass the reasonable-doubt test, potentially violating the U.S. Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishments. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for an 8-1 majority, said the Kansas high court was wrong to read such a specific jury instruction into the Bill of Rights. “In the last analysis, jurors will accord mercy if they deem it appropriate, and withhold mercy if they do not, which is what our case law is designed to achieve,” he said. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented.