Crime & Courts

Court hears appeal in sheriff's 2005 murder

Scott Cheever is led from the courtroom in Greenwood County courthouse Wednesday morning after his sentencing hearing. Cheever was convicted of killing Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels when Samuels attempted to serve a warrant on Cheever in January 2005.
Scott Cheever is led from the courtroom in Greenwood County courthouse Wednesday morning after his sentencing hearing. Cheever was convicted of killing Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels when Samuels attempted to serve a warrant on Cheever in January 2005. File photo

TOPEKA — Sheriff Matt Samuels often didn't carry a gun, and his morning rounds included having coffee with the folks around rural Greenwood County.

He knew everyone by their first name — even Scott Cheever, the man who killed Samuels the morning of Jan. 19, 2005.

The sheriff's death shocked the community. On Nov. 1, 2007, it took a jury less than two hours to decide Cheever should die.

Wednesday, Cheever's case went to the Kansas Supreme Court on appeal.

One of the justices said that because a death sentence is final, every detail and legal mistake should be scrutinized.

"One juror can find that mercy needs to be granted, and death should not be imposed," Justice Lee Johnson said. "It takes beyond clairvoyance to determine what is a harmless error."

No Kansas death sentence has held up on appeal since the state enacted the current capital punishment law in 1993. A ruling in the Cheever case could take months.

Wednesday's most probing questions focused on whether prosecutors overstepped their legal bounds in offering testimony by a psychiatrist who suggested Cheever was beyond hope.

"In his opinion, Scott Cheever has a bad character and that's why these crimes occurred," Debra Wilson of the capital appellate defenders' office argued about the trial testimony of Michael Welner. "That should have been excluded."

Courts have limited the use of character evidence, especially by prosecutors. Similar testimony Welner, a professor at New York University, was stricken in a New Jersey case, Wilson said.

Prosecutors called Welner to dispute Cheever's defense that he was so high on meth he didn't know what he was doing. Voluntary intoxication is a legal defense in Kansas if the defendant can show it prevented him from forming the intent or premeditation to commit the crime.

Cheever said he was so high on meth, he didn't know what he was doing when he shot Samuels.

Welner said Cheever showed an ability to make decisions.

"He made a decision to shoot when he did," Welner testified. "And when he stopped shooting, he made a decision to stop shooting."

But when Welner told the jury Cheever showed anti-social behavior and strayed into his psychological history, that may have prejudiced the jury.

"He didn't have to say the reason he did it was because of some character trait," Justice Lee Johnson said.

Kristafer Ailslieger, assistant state solicitor general, argued that Cheever himself had testified about letters he wrote after the killing, bragging about the shooting and calling himself an "outlaw."

"But why does (Welner's) interview get to come in?" asked Justice Dan Biles.

Ailslieger said Cheever's defense had asked for an examination with Welner when Cheever faced charges in federal court.

Prosecutors so intently wanted to seek death for Cheever that when the Kansas death penalty came under question, the case was moved to federal court.

Welner was hired by the prosecution, which asked for a court order for him to evaluate Cheever, according to statements in the federal case. Prosecutors anticipated Cheever might try to use diminished mental capacity as a defense.

After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kansas' death penalty in 2006, the case moved back to state court.

Because Cheever had to talk to Welner, his statements were not voluntary, Wilson argued.

"How do you justify introducing a compelled statement?" Justice Marla Luckert asked.

Ailslieger said Welner was providing background on Cheever's mental history.

"The law is very, very, very clear that unless the defendant puts in this issue, it's irrelevant," added Justice Carol Beier.

The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that diminished mental capacity is different from a voluntary intoxication defense.

Kansas hasn't carried out an execution since 1965.

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