Crime & Courts

Kansas Supreme Court overturns conviction of death-row inmate in sheriff’s killing

The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday overturned the capital murder conviction of a death-row inmate who shot and killed Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels.

The court said in its ruling that prosecutors violated Scott Cheever’s 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.

The Kansas Supreme Court has yet to uphold a death sentence imposed under the state’s 1994 capital murder law.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said his office was reviewing Friday’s ruling but didn’t indicate whether the state would retry the case.

“We will be consulting with appropriate parties over the next few days to determine the best course of action to ensure justice is served,” Schmidt said.

Cheever, now 31, is a special management inmate at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

Cheever was convicted of shooting Samuels on Jan. 19, 2005, near the Greenwood County town of Virgil. Acting on a tip, witnesses at Cheever’s trial testified, Samuels went to the home to serve an arrest warrant on Cheever. Cheever and other residents of the home had been cooking and using meth before Samuels and a deputy arrived. Cheever, who was hiding in an upstairs bedroom, shot Samuels as he climbed the stairs. Cheever never denied shooting Samuels.

Although Cheever was originally charged with capital murder in Greenwood County District Court, the case was moved to federal court because the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty was being challenged at the time. In the summer of 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law, and Cheever’s case was moved back to state court.

During Cheever’s time in the federal court system, U.S. District Judge Monte Belot ordered him to undergo a psychiatric examination by Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist hired by the government. It was Welner’s testimony at the state court trail that would eventually result in Cheever’s conviction being overturned.

During his jury trail, Cheever’s lawyers relied on a voluntary intoxication defense, arguing that Cheever’s heavy use of meth prevented him from forming the intent or premeditation to commit murder.

Lee Evans, dean of the school of pharmacy at Auburn University, was called as an expert witness by the defense to testify that Cheever’s use of meth kept him from making sound decisions.

With respect to shooting Samuels, Evans testified, there “was no judgment. There was no judgment at all. This man just did it.”

Welner, who was called by prosecutors as a rebuttal witness, disagreed.

"He made a decision to shoot when he did," he told the jury. “And when he stopped shooting, he made a decision to stop shooting."

The Greenwood County jury convicted Cheever of capital murder on Oct. 30, 2007, then sentenced him to death two days later.

In a 53-page opinion that overturned the conviction, the Kansas Supreme Court said the Fifth Amendment does not prevent a judge from ordering a defendant to submit to a mental exam. But the court said it does prevent the state from using the exam against the defendant at trial.

“Welner was the last witness the jury heard during the guilt phase of the trail, and his testimony was extensive and devastating,” the ruling said. “He employed a method of testifying that virtually put words into Cheever’s mouth. He focused on the events surrounding the shootings, giving a moment-by-moment recounting of Cheever’s observations and actual thoughts to rebut the sole defense theory that he did not premeditate the crimes.”

In addition to capital murder, Cheever was convicted on four counts of attempted capital murder for firing at two state troopers and two sheriff’s deputies. The court also overturned those convictions. Cheever’s convictions for manufacturing methamphetamine and criminal possession of a firearm were upheld.

Samuels’ death prompted changes in the Kansas criminal code to make it more difficult to purchase the ingredients used in making meth. Changes in the law restricting the purchase of certain allergy medications and increased penalties were known as the Matt Samuels Act.

Contributing: Associated Press

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