Release Date:  October 15, 2013
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Supreme Court to hold oral argument in Kansas v. Cheever on Wednesday

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument Wednesday to review a Kansas high court ruling that prevents the prosecution from effectively rebutting a murderer’s mental defense. The state court ruled last year that the Constitution prohibits the prosecution from introducing its own expert evidence to rebut the defense expert’s testimony that the defendant was too intoxicated to have intentionally committed murder.

At the invitation of the Kansas Attorney General, the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has filed a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief seeking to overturn the Kansas court’s ruling.

Unlike many other states, Kansas limits the ability of the prosecution to have its expert evaluate the mental condition of a defendant, unless the defendant is presenting the claim that he is mentally ill. Claims that a temporary mental disorder, including intoxication, reduces the defendant’s responsibility for the crime do not qualify. A decision upholding the Kansas court’s ruling would set precedent barring mental evaluations by prosecution experts in federal cases and in other states which currently allow them.

The case of Kansas v. Cheever involves a drug criminal sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of a Kansas Sheriff. On the morning of January 19, 2005, Greenwood County Sheriff Matthew Samuels, accompanied by two deputies, went to the home of Darrell Cooper to serve an arrest warrant for Scott Cheever, who was staying there. Earlier that morning, Cheever had been preparing methamphetamine and ingesting some of the drug. Before the police arrived, the Coopers received a call, warning that they were coming. Learning this, Cheever hid upstairs with two loaded handguns. When the police arrived, Cooper told Sheriff Samuels that Cheever was not there, but allowed him into the house to look around. When Sheriff Samuels started to climb the stairs to the second floor, Cheever stepped out of the bedroom and shot him. After shooting Samuels a second time, Cheever shot at the two deputies who tried to drag the wounded Sheriff out of the line of fire.

Later, police surrounded the Cooper house and sent in a SWAT team to capture Cheever. He surrendered after exchanging gunfire with the SWAT team.

Cheever was charged in state court with murder, attempted murder, and the manufacturing of methamphetamine. When the Kansas Supreme Court erroneously announced in another case that the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional, the state prosecution was dismissed and a federal prosecution was initiated. Cheever notified the federal court that he would introduce expert testimony supporting his claim that during the murder he was under the influence of methamphetamine and unable to control his actions. Under federal law, the prosecutor is entitled to have an independent expert evaluate the defendant, and the judge granted the prosecutor’s request to do this.

In June 2006, the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the Kansas death penalty in Kansas v. Marsh (won by CJLF), overturning the Kansas court’s erroneous ruling. The federal prosecution was later suspended when Cheever’s defense attorney was unable to proceed, and the state case was refiled.

At trial, Cheever introduced his expert, a pharmacist, who testified that, based upon Cheever’s use of methamphetamine, he had no judgment when he shot Sheriff Samuels. The prosecution countered with testimony from Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and clinical pyschopharmacologist, who had been authorized to evaluate Cheever in the earlier federal prosecution. Dr. Welner told the court that Cheever’s behavior before and during the murder demonstrated he could control his actions and that he was able to intentionally kill Sheriff Samuels.

On August 24, 2012, a jury found Cheever guilty of the murder and drug charges and sentenced him to death. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned the conviction on direct appeal, announcing that the U. S. Constitution only permits evidence from a compelled mental examination to be introduced when the defendant claims he is mentally ill. “Accordingly, we find that Cheever’s evidence showed only that he suffered from a temporary mental incapacity due to voluntary intoxication; it was not evidence of a mental disease or defect . . . . Therefore, we conclude that allowing [Dr. Michael] Welner to testify in rebuttal to the voluntary intoxication defense violated Cheever’s constitutional rights . . . .”

In its brief, the Foundation argues that U. S. Supreme Court precedent allows evidence from a compelled psychological examination to be introduced when the defendant has introduced his own evidence in support of a mental defense. The Foundation notes that this rule is focused on the need for a balanced presentation of evidence, not the type of mental defense claimed.

“There are many mental defense claims that fall outside the definition of ‘mental disease or defect.’ If accepted by a jury, these claims can significantly reduce or eliminate a defendant’s responsibility for his crimes,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. “A decision to deny a prosecutor the opportunity to develop rebuttal evidence to such claims would blind juries to essential information regarding the validity of a defendant’s mental impairment. Such a rule would place a heavy thumb on the scales of justice, allowing guilty criminals to get off with bogus mental claims,” he added.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.