The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday upheld the capital murder conviction and death sentence of Scott Cheever, who was convicted of gunning down Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels during a drug raid in 2005.
In a 52-page opinion penned by Justice Eric Rosen, the state’s high court rejected Cheever’s claims that errors occurred during the guilty-phase of his trial.
The court in the ruling also identified four errors — including improper comments made and the district court judge’s instructions to jurors — that occurred during the sentencing phase of Cheever’s trial. But the court said none, considered alone or collectively, reached the threshold required to throw out his death sentence.
“In light of the record as a whole, the total effect of these errors had very little, if any, likelihood of changing the jury’s ultimate conclusion that death was the appropriate sentence,” Rosen wrote.
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Cheever claimed jurors who decided his fate weren’t told mitigating factors — which seek leniency in sentencing — presented in the penalty phase of a trial needn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be used in the weighing process. In death penalty cases, a jury hears evidence both in support of execution and against it, and then decides which carries greater weight.
He also claimed a prosecutor unfairly harmed his chances at life imprisonment when he told jurors they should reject requests for leniency on the basis of Cheever’s methamphetamine use.
The court expressed disapproval at the remark in Friday’s ruling, but said that the error was harmless.
The decision to uphold Cheever’s death sentence was 6-1.
Justice Lee Johnson was the lone dissenter, saying he would have vacated Cheever’s death sentence and remanded the case to district court. The death penalty, he wrote, in his view violates the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights’ ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
He also said the instruction error regarding mitigating factors warranted a new sentencing proceeding.
A Greenwood County jury in 2007 convicted Cheever of capital murder for Samuels’ death, four counts of attempted capital murder for firing at other law enforcement officers, criminal possession of a firearm and manufacturing methamphetamine.
On appeal, Cheever challenged his capital murder and attempted capital murder convictions, as well as his death sentence.
The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled on Cheever’s death appeal once before. It vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial in 2012, saying prosecutors violated Cheever’s right against self-incrimination when they allowed an expert witness to testify in Greenwood County District Court about a mental evaluation of Cheever’s that had been ordered by a federal court judge.
But the U.S. Supreme Court the following year said Cheever’s death sentence shouldn’t have been thrown out and ordered the state’s high court to look at the case again.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt in an e-mailed statement said he felt “encouraged the Kansas Supreme Court has agreed that this case was properly tried and the defendant was properly convicted and sentenced under applicable law.”
“Unless the United States Supreme Court takes the highly unusual step of agreeing to hear this case a second time, today’s ruling marks the end of the first line of appeals in this case,” Schmidt said.
It’s unclear when an execution by lethal injection would take place, but it’s unlikely to occur anytime soon. Cheever, now 34, is a special management inmate at Lansing Correctional Facility. He is one of 10 men currently awaiting execution in Kansas.
Cheever shot Samuels on Jan. 19, 2005, while the sheriff was trying to serve an arrest warrant on him at a house in the town of Virgil.
Cheever shot Samuels on a staircase leading to the upstairs bedroom where he was hiding. He and others in the house had been cooking and using methamphetamine that day.
Cheever, according to The Eagle’s news archives, never denied killing the sheriff. But during his trial, Cheever’s lawyers argued that his heavy meth use prevented him from forming murderous intent or premeditation.
Jurors recommended a death sentence for Cheever after delivering a guilty verdict.
Samuels’ death prompted law changes that made it more difficult to purchase ingredients, including some allergy medications, used in making meth. The changes were known as the Matt Samuels Act.
Cheever’s death sentence is the second affirmed by the Kansas Supreme Court. The first came in November when the court decided Kansas City-area serial killer John E. Robinson Sr., who stored the bodies of some of his victims in barrels, must remain on death row.
Robinson’s attorneys are seeking a U.S. Supreme Court review of the ruling, but justices have not yet decided whether to hear the case.
Also last year, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Kansas Supreme Court’s decisions to vacate death sentences in three cases. Those were of brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, who killed five people during a notorious crime spree in Wichita in 2000, and that of Sidney Gleason, who murdered a couple in Barton County in 2004.
The state Legislature reinstated capital punishment in 1994.
No one has been executed in Kansas since 1965.