Release Date:  December 11, 2013
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Decision in Kansas v. Cheever Reinstates Death Sentence

In a unanimous decision announced today, the United States Supreme Court overturned a Kansas Supreme Court ruling limiting psychological evidence in criminal cases. The state court had held that the Constitution prohibits the prosecution from introducing its own expert's mental examination of the defendant 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 had joined the case to argue for today's Supreme Court decision.

"An examination of the subject is essential for a testifying expert to do his job properly and for the jury to see the truth," said CJLF's Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. "If the defendant chooses to open the door with his own psychological expert, this evidence must be available to both sides."

In the Court's unanimous opinion, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, "We hold that where a defense expert who has examined the defendant testifies that the defendant lacked the requisite mental state to commit a crime, the prosecution may offer evidence from a court-ordered psychological examination for the limited purpose of rebutting the defendant's evidence."

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. The Kansas Supreme Court went beyond state law, though, and held that this distinction is required by the Fifth Amendment. A decision upholding the Kansas court's ruling would have 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 argued that U. S. Supreme Court precedent allows evidence from a compelled psychological examination to be introduced when the defendant has introduced his own examination-based 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. "Today's decision will prevent guilty criminals from getting off with bogus mental defenses that can be shown to be bogus with a proper examination."

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