Saturday, July 30, 2016, marks one year since a Sedgwick County jury acquitted Kyler Carriker of first-degree felony murder in the shooting death of Ronald Betts. District Attorney Marc Bennett charged Carriker with murder because the state alleges that Carriker helped arrange a marijuana deal between the deceased, and another man, Lorenzo Spires. Spires showed up to the transaction with several other men, one of whom shot Carriker and Betts, and then robbed Betts.
Under Kansas law, if a person is engaged in the commission of an inherently dangerous felony which results in the death of an individual, that person can be charged with first-degree felony murder. State law defines an inherently dangerous felony as a felony crime that is likely to result in death.
The State of Kansas amended the inherently dangerous felony list after Betts’ death, adding “being an agent [middle-man] in a drug transaction”, presumably so that Carriker could be tried for murder. Sedgwick County District Court Judge Terry Pullman determined that the defense could not argue that the robbery, and not the attempted sale of marijuana, a robbery which Carriker was not involved in, and was in fact a victim of, was the inherently dangerous felony that resulted in death. First-degree felony murder carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The United States Constitution expressly forbids ex post facto prosecution, which means that the state cannot pass a law, and then retroactively charge someone for committing a crime before it was legally considered a crime, which is exactly what the state did to Carriker.
Prosecutors in the case employed questionable tactics in their attempt to convict Carriker. For example, during discovery, the state was forced to turn over roughly 7,000 pages of documents which they had initially withheld. Instead of keeping the documents together and in order, the state scrambled all of the pages in a massive PDF file, mixing all of the documents together. Carriker’s mother was forced to sort through the 7,000 pages, one-by-one, to match them back up with their corresponding pages.
In response to her son being charged with murder for essentially telling someone where to buy a bag of marijuana, Carriker’s mother, local business owner Jennifer Winn, ran against Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in the 2014 Republican Primary, garnering a surprising 37% of the vote while only spending $15,000 on her campaign. Winn, who had not been involved in politics prior to her son’s arrest, has since become a leading advocate for marijuana law reform, in regards to both the justice system as well as the child welfare system.
After Carriker’s acquittal, members of the jury spoke with Carriker and Winn, informing them that they found Carriker “not guilty” of felony first-degree murder because they believed that the law was wrong, and that Carriker was not involved with, nor responsible for the actions of the men who ultimately robbed and killed Betts.
Throughout the week-long duration of the trial, protesters, led by California activist Joe Grumbine of The Human Solution and Wichita activist Mike Shatz, carried signs that bore messages encouraging people to Google search the term “jury nullification”. Jury nullification refers to the right of a jury to find a defendant not guilty if the jury disagrees with the law itself. Prior to the beginning of the War on Drugs, jurors in the United States were informed of these rights during jury instruction.
Today, one year after he was found not guilty, Carriker is doing well, working as a tractor operator, caring for his family, and fishing, which he says is his favorite hobby. Carriker remains on probation stemming from the related marijuana charge, of which he was convicted. The State attempted to appeal Carriker’s sentence on that charge, which was probation, with an underlying sentence of six years in prison, but prosecutor’s missed a deadline.
Carriker is defended by attorney Michael Whalen, who is considered one of the best appeals attorneys in the state of Kansas. Whether or not the State will continue to push for Carriker to be imprisoned is unclear. Oddly, Carriker is still being forced to pay $12,000 in restitution for Betts’ funeral expenses, despite the jury determining that he was not responsible for Betts’ death, and cannot complete his probation until that debt is settled.