On This Day Kyler Carriker FB Image

Case Summary

Carriker2On 17 April 2013, Kyler Carriker, a 22-year-old husband and father, was approached by an old high school acquaintance, Lorenzo Spires, who was seeking to purchase marijuana. Carriker contacted his co-worker Kyle Beltz who set up a meeting that night between Spires and a dealer, Ronald Betts.

Unbeknownst to either Carriker or Beltz, Spires had joined a street gang shortly after high school and, as he admitted later in court, arranged the meeting with the sole intent of robbing Betts. Within a minute of entering Beltz’s house, Spires’s fellow gang member Dennis Haynes open fired 27 times killing Betts and wounding Carriker in an attempted robbery. Two years later Carriker was on trial for felony murder under a retroactive amendment to Kansas state law, despite the arrest and conviction of the actual perpetrators Lorenzo Spires and Dennis Haynes.

Felony murder is a different offense than the felony that is called murder. It is a legal doctrine under which a person can be charged with murder for a death that he did not intend to happen—even if he did not participate in the killing—if the death happened in the course of a dangerous felony in which the accused person participated. Under the felony murder doctrine, every participant in the felony, regardless of their lack of participation in the killing, can be held equally responsible for murder as the person who actually caused the death.

Laws regarding felony murder have been expanded in the United States from armed robbery and other violent crimes to include other allegedly “inherently dangerous felonies” such as drug deals. The 1 July 2013 amendment to the Kansas felony murder law, which was passed almost three months after the incident, expanded the law to include facilitators of drug deals such as Carriker. Under an ex post facto application of this amendment, the prosecution charged Carriker with felony murder despite patent constitutional protections.

Tellingly, the prosecution chose not to offer Carriker a plea deal in exchange for testimony against the shooter Dennis Haynes because he was “a victim in the case” and “not involved in the robbery”. While labeling Carriker a victim of the armed robbery perpetrated by Haynes, the prosecution continued to prepare their case against him.

The case rested on Carriker’s tenuous thread of involvement, as the prosecution argued that since Carriker facilitated the drug deal which ultimately resulted in a series of events leading to the murder, he was thus directly responsible for Betts’s death. Disregarding these many degrees of separation, the prosecution named Carriker both the victim and accessory of Haynes’ actions.

Additionally, the jury was not permitted to know that their conviction of Carriker would automatically lead to 20 years in prison without parole under the Kansas state mandatory minimum.

CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara commented on the folly of mandatory minimums arguing, “When a judge faces a minimum mandatory sentence, her hands are tied, she becomes a mathematician rather than a dispenser of justice. If the facts and the law support a harsh sentence, a judge has the discretion to impose it, but we should not force their hands when minimum mandatories produce obviously unjust sentences.”

With the jury left ignorant and the judge left beholden to this minimum, the case began in late July of 2015. Per the retroactive amendment, the prosecution only had to convince the jury of Carriker’s guilt in facilitating the drug deal to sentence him to 20 years under the felony murder law. During the week-long trial, the prosecution, argued that, under this amendment, Carriker’s facilitation of a meeting between Betts and Spires constituted a fulfillment of the felony murder law’s requirements.

As Carriker openly admitted to his role in the drug deal, it looked as if the jury would unknowingly send Carriker to prison for 20 years. Cementing this fear, the prosecution attained the judge’s approval to prevent the defense from speaking about the jury’s right to conscientiously acquit.

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Despite a motion in limine to prevent even the mention of jury nullification, Carriker’s mother, Jennifer Winn, and family, in conjunction with The Human Solution International and other groups, organized protests outside the courthouse. Over 100 protesters joined Jennifer Winn in lining the parking lot and public spaces around the courthouse with information demanding the jurors be fully informed about jury nullification.

Carriker3According to the jury foreman in a later conversation with Winn, these protests had such an effect by the end of the trial that the jurors were fully aware of and educated on the very topic the prosecution was trying to bury.

Additionally, Joe Grumbine of The Human Solution International reported that after being granted its motion to prevent discussion of jury nullification in court, the prosecution itself brought up the topic in front of the jury. Once the prosecution opened the door, the defense was able to respond, invoking language that informed the jury that they could bring in any verdict they saw fit and could not be punished for it.

Armed with this knowledge, on 30 July 2015 the jury convicted Carriker on the minor charge of possession with intent to distribute, but refused to find Carriker guilty of felony murder as a result of the minor conviction.

In refusing to convict Carriker of felony murder, the jury nullified both the ex post facto amendment that threatened to jail Carriker for 20 years and the basic application of the felony murder law to Carriker simply because, as one jury member told Carriker and his family, the “law is wrong”.

Unfortunately for Carriker and his family, the prosecution refused to stop after this clear acquittal. Without notifying Carriker, the prosecution appealed his already severe sentence of 60 days in prison and 3 years of probation as well as a $12,000 fine to pay for the funeral of Ronald Betts, the man Dennis Haynes shot and killed after shooting Carriker. Even though the prosecution filed its appeal after the deadline and only notified Carriker of the appeal 6 months after it was filed, Carriker now faces the threat of another trial with the prosecution seeking a maximum sentence of 6 years in prison.

Case Documents

Kansas Felony Murder Law
Motion in Limine to Prevent Jury Nullification Defense
State’s Continuing Motion to Prevent Jury Nullification Defense
Defendant’s Proposed Jury Instructions
Jury Instructions

FIJA Documents

How Jury Nullification Played into the Carriker Acquittal
Jury Nullification for Carriker in Ridiculous Felony Murder Case

Other Resources

Kansas Exposed Series on the Carriker Case
Justice for Kyler on Facebook

Research and Writing Credit: Nathan Tschepik
Photo Credit: All photos provided by Jennifer Winn.