When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday, it will be considering a Kansas death penalty case that has moved from the Greenwood County Courthouse in Eureka, to the federal courthouse in Wichita, back through Eureka, and then through the Kansas Supreme Court in Topeka.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, which is expected next spring, likely will determine whether Scott Cheever will be retried for the January 2005 shooting of Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in August 2012 that prosecutors violated Cheever’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when they allowed an expert witness to discuss the results of a mental exam that Cheever was required by a federal judge to take.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt appealed that state court decision and is scheduled to argue his case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal, a former acting Solicitor General, is representing Cheever in the case at no charge. The court has set aside an hour for arguments.
Cheever, 32, is a special management inmate at the Lansing Correctional Facility. Kansas inmates convicted of capital murder are normally held at the El Dorado Correctional Facility, but the Kansas Department of Corrections did not want to house Cheever in a prison where some of Samuels’ friends and relatives work.
Throughout eight years of legal proceedings, no one has disputed that Cheever shot and killed Samuels on Jan. 19, 2005. Samuels, who had a warrant for Cheever’s arrest, went to a home in the community of Hilltop, where Cheever and others had been manufacturing and using meth. Cheever hid in a bedroom upstairs and shot Samuels as the sheriff climbed the stairs.
Cheever was charged in Greenwood County District Court with capital murder, but the case was moved to federal court because of a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that said the state’s death penalty law was unconstitutional.
In federal court, Cheever was charged with two crimes that carried a possible death sentence – committing a murder while using a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime and the murder of a witness. While the case was in federal court, Cheever used a voluntary intoxication defense, contending that he could not form the necessary mental state to be guilty of murder. The judge presiding in the case ordered a mental exam, which was performed by Michael Welner, a professor of psychiatry at NYU.
In June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling and reinstated the state’s death penalty law. That prompted state officials to refile Cheever’s case in Greenwood County District Court.
Cheever’s capital murder trial began in October 2007, and one of the key defense witnesses was Lee Evans, dean of the school of pharmacy at Auburn University, who testified that Cheever's use of meth kept him from making sound decisions. He told the jury that Cheever’s meth use left him “no judgment at all” on the day he killed Samuels.
As a rebuttal witness, prosecutors called Welner to the stand to testify about the court-ordered test he performed while the case was in federal court. He told the jury that Cheever knew what he was doing when he fired. “He made a decision to shoot when he did,” he testified. “And when he stopped shooting, he made a decision to stop shooting.”
It was Welner’s testimony, which was based on his court-ordered interview with Cheever, that prompted the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn Cheever’s conviction.
The ultimate question now before the U.S. Supreme Court deals with whether a criminal defendant waives his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by asserting a defense that requires a court-ordered mental exam.