The U.S. Supreme Court has resurrected Scott Cheever’s conviction and death sentence in the 2005 fatal shooting of Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels.
In a decision Wednesday, the nation’s high court found that the Kansas Supreme Court wrongly overturned Cheever’s 2007 conviction and death sentence. The Kansas high court had found that prosecutors violated Cheever’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by using a court-ordered mental evaluation from a different proceeding against him.
Samuels’ son, Heath Samuels, now a 28-year-old Lyon County sheriff’s deputy, said of the news: “That’s an awesome win for us, and I’m very happy to hear it.”
Heath Samuels, who was 19 when his father died at age 42, said it was “not only a win for the law enforcement community,” it’s a “huge win for the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. It actually gives you something to stand on.”
Greenwood County Sheriff Rusty Bitler, who was a deputy at the time of the shooting and arrived shortly after it happened, said simply, “I’m very pleased with the decision the Supreme Court made.”
Cheever’s legal challenges are far from over, one of his appellate lawyers said Wednesday.
Heath Samuels said he realizes more legal battles lie ahead. “They’re going to appeal it, we understand that,” Samuels said. Regardless of the legal arguments, Samuels said, what’s key to him is that Cheever admitted that he shot and killed his father.
Cheever’s state of mind at the time of the killing has been a key issue.
In the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that an expert testifying for the defense contended that Cheever’s methamphetamine use had damaged his brain. And because Cheever’s expert brought up the brain damage contention, prosecutors could use rebuttal testimony from an expert. That expert argued that Cheever had an anti-social personality that was responsible for the crime.
In a statement about the decision, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt quoted Sotomayor: “We hold that where a defense expert who has examined the defendant testifies that the defendant lacked the requisite mental state to commit a crime, the prosecution may offer evidence from a court-ordered psychological examination for the limited purpose of rebutting the defendant’s evidence.”
Schmidt argued the case before the high court in October.
Debra Wilson, one of the public appellate defenders representing Cheever, summed up her view of the court’s decision, and how it will play out, this way: “The Supreme Court has decided the state could rebut Scott’s expert testimony with testimony of its own. The decision leaves for the Kansas Supreme Court to decide whether the state’s expert’s testimony exceeded the bounds of proper rebuttal under constitutional and state evidentiary standards.”
In other words, an unresolved question now is whether the scope of the state’s rebuttal testimony went too far, Wilson said.
The Kansas high court still has other questions to decide, Wilson said, adding that on Wednesday she filed a motion for additional arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court. The state court could take up other errors it found in the case, she said.
So even with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the prosecution, “we’re not finished at the Kansas Supreme Court level,” Wilson said.
Although she realizes her role is not a popular one, Wilson said, she is reminded of this principle: “When you defend one person’s right to a fair trial, you are defending everyone’s right to a fair trial.”
The appeal work for Cheever is required by law for all death sentences, she said.
It’s reasonable to assume that the appeals process could go on another 10 years, she said.
The Eagle reported earlier this year that for the second time since the state reinstated the capital murder law in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear the appeal of a death sentence overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court.
The Eagle article summarized the issue before the court this way: “The state court overturned Cheever’s conviction in August, ruling that prosecutors violated his right against self-incrimination when they allowed an expert witness to testify about the results of a mental exam that Cheever was required by a judge to take.
“The Fifth Amendment does not prevent a judge from ordering a defendant to submit to a mental exam, the state court ruling said, but it does prevent the state from using the exam against the defendant at trial.”
When Schmidt announced in September that he was appealing the state court ruling, he said he didn’t think the ruling correctly reflected the requirements of the Fifth Amendment.
New York University forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner had testified as a rebuttal witness after a defense expert told a Greenwood County jury that Cheever’s meth use kept him from making sound decisions. Welner conducted a federal court-ordered mental exam of Cheever.
“He made a decision to shoot when he did,” Welner told the jury.
A jury convicted Cheever of capital murder in 2007, and he received a death sentence.
In 2005, Matt Samuels had a warrant for Cheever’s arrest and went to a home in the town of Virgil. There, according to witnesses, Cheever and others had been making and using meth.
Cheever reportedly hid in an upstairs bedroom. Samuels was shot as he climbed the stairs.
Contributing: Hurst Laviana of The Eagle, the Associated Press