Cheever case marks fourth time court has invalidated a Kansas death sentence

When the Kansas Supreme Court overturned the capital murder conviction of Scott Cheever on Friday, it marked the fourth time in four tries that the state’s highest court has invalidated a Kansas death sentence.

The decision was quickly heralded by death penalty opponents.

“This case is another example of just how flawed the Kansas death penalty is,” officials with the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty said in a news release. “We can’t eliminate the possibility of error. It’s time for Kansas to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.”

But local prosecutors said Saturday that the Cheever ruling is likely to have no impact on the state’s death penalty law or on the appeals of two Sedgwick County death penalty cases that have yet to be considered by Kansas Supreme Court.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, who is finishing her sixth term in office but is not seeking re-election, said she doesn’t expect the appeals of Douglas Belt and Jonathan and Reginald Carr to be resolved before she leaves office in January. But she said she is confident that both cases will survive a test by the state Supreme Court.

“I am optimistic on the Belt case; I’m also optimistic on State v. Carr,” she said. “We worked long and hard on those cases to make sure there were no problems.”

Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett, who will take over for Foulston in January, said the Cheever decision arose from an evidentiary problem that had nothing to do with the death penalty law.

“As I understand the ruling, it had nothing to do with the death penalty or the manner in which it was applied,” he said. “It could have happened in any murder trail.”

The court said in its ruling that prosecutors in the Cheever case improperly allowed a witness to testify about the results of a mental exam that Cheever was required by a federal judge to take.

“It was an error by the prosecutors who tried the case,” Foulston said. “I didn’t see anything in that case that would lead me to believe that the court did anything other than apply the law correctly.”

Although the Supreme Court has now reversed four death-penalty convictions, Bennett said it also has upheld several capital murder convictions that did not result in a death sentence. He said the court recently upheld the convictions of Elgin Ray Robinson Jr. and Ted Burnett, who both escaped death sentences after they were convicted of capital murder in the June 9, 2006, strangulation death of 14-year-old Chelsea Brooks.

Donna Schneweis of Topeka, who issued the news release on behalf of the Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said the Cheever ruling, if nothing else, shows that the courts are not perfect.

“The reality is that in Kansas, when a life is on the line, courts are making mistakes,” she said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle