The Kansas Supreme Court had thrown out the death sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr, who were convicted in the so-called "Wichita Massacre" in 2000. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 8-1 majority, called the murders "acts of almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity" and sent the case back down to the lower court for further proceedings.
The case is largely specific to the crimes at hand, but comes at a time when the country has shown renewed interest in the death penalty, and two justices have suggested that the court should revisit its constitutionality. The Carr case did not directly target the constitutionality of the death penalty, and those two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, joined Scalia's opinion in full. Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
In his opinion, Scalia carefully detailed the violent aspects of the murders before discussing the legal issues at stake in the case.
Scalia wrote that the crime spree, which was carried out over three days, began in December 2000 when the two brothers carjacked and robbed one victim, forcing him to travel to ATM machines to make withdrawals. They attacked a woman who later died as a result of her injuries, and invaded the home of other victims, engaging in sex crimes and kidnapping, leaving four people dead. One survived only because her hair clip deflected a bullet to the head.
Scalia said that the survivor, named Holly, spotted a house with white Christmas lights, "started running toward it for help -- naked, skull shattered, and without shoes, through the snow and over barbed-wire fences."
Scalia wrote that Holly ultimately rang the doorbell, relayed the events of the night to the man who opened the door, "fearing that she would not live."
Although the brothers were convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and rape, the Kansas Supreme Court threw out the death sentences.
It held that the jury instructions violated the Eighth Amendment because the jurors weren't told that they didn't have to prove so-called "mitigating factors" -- issues like a defendant's history of abuse or mental illness -- beyond a reasonable doubt.
On a separate issue, the Kansas Supreme Court also said that the brothers should have had separate penalty proceedings because the evidence supporting one brother's sentence could be antagonistic of the other.
Scalia said the lower court was wrong on both counts. He said that jurors would not have misunderstood the jury instructions in the case "to prevent their consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence."
"The reality is," Scalia wrote, "that jurors do not parse instructions for subtle shades of meaning in the same way that lawyers might."
On the second issue, Scalia said that that "joint proceedings are not only permissible but are often preferable when the joined defendants' criminal conduct arises out of a single chain of events," he wrote.
"Only the most extravagant speculation would lead to the conclusion that the supposedly prejudicial evidence rendered the Carr brothers' joint sentencing proceeding fundamentally unfair," Scalia said.
At oral arguments back in October, Justice Samuel Alito had also highlighted the violent details of the case, saying, "we see practically every death penalty case that comes up anywhere in the country" and that the Kansas murders "have to rank as among the worst."
Sotomayor, however, said she saw no reason for the cases to have been reviewed by the Supreme Court.
"Kansas has not violated any federal constitutional right," she said, worrying that "cases like these prevent states from serving as necessary laboratories for experimenting with how best to guarantee defendants in a fair trial."
She said that the Kansas Supreme Court's opinion would be unlikely "to have much salience for other states," and if it was wrong, "it will not subvert federal law on a broader scale."