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Kansas Supreme Court upholds capital murder conviction, death sentence of Scott Cheever



Four years after it overturned his capital murder conviction, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld that conviction and the death sentence of Scott Cheever on Friday.


In a 6-1 opinion written by Justice Eric Rosen, the high court determined the first-person testimony of a mental health expert, while not ideal, didn’t constitute reversible error.


“Having taken the stand, Cheever opened himself to rebuttal testimony just as he opened himself to cross-examination concerning both the substance of his testimony and his credibility as a witness,” Rosen wrote.


On Jan. 29, 2005, Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Cheever, who had been cooking and ingesting methamphetamine that morning. During the attempted arrest, Samuels was shot and killed by Cheever, who also shot a deputy, a detective and two Kansas Highway Patrol troopers as they attempted to help the wounded Samuels.


During his trial, Cheever argued he was voluntarily intoxicated and his meth use rendered him incapable of forming premeditation. The jury, unconvinced, convicted him of capital murder and four counts of attempted capital murder. He was sentenced to death.


In 2012, the Kansas Supreme Court unanimously overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial be held, ruling Cheever’s Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination were violated when a psychiatric expert, Michael Welner, testified about Cheever’s mental state.


Welner, the last person to testify during the trial, said Cheever’s perceptions and decision-making ability weren’t impaired by his chronic use of methamphetamine, a strong rebuttal of Cheever’s arguments to the contrary. Welner told the jury that Cheever could control his actions and form the intent to kill Samuels.


The Kansas Supreme Court ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in October 2013 and decided it on Dec. 11 of that year. In a unanimous 9-0 ruling, the court determined Welner’s testimony didn’t violate Cheever’s Fifth Amendment rights, reversing the Kansas court’s opinion.


“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,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor.


Cheever’s legal saga didn’t end there. He argued that even if prosecutors are allowed to introduce expert testimony in such circumstances, Welner’s testimony went far beyond the scope of his expertise. Welner testified that Cheever “was a remorseless sociopath, who idolized outlaws and sought to emulate those who killed law enforcement officers,” Cheever’s attorney argued.


The state of Kansas, led by solicitor general Stephen McAllister, argued Welner’s testimony covered topics previously introduced by Cheever’s defense and Cheever himself. For example, it was Roswell Evans, a doctor of pharmacy and defense witness, who first testified that Cheever saw himself as a “Billy the Kid kind of character.” Welner’s testimony therefore didn’t exceed the scope of proper rebuttal, McAllister argued.


The U.S. Supreme Court returned the case to the Kansas Supreme Court to hear the matter, which it did in September 2014 and ruled on Friday, largely agreeing with McAllister.


“Much of Welner’s testimony concerning details of the crimes, and Cheever’s actions constituting them, was responsive to Cheever’s own testimony,” Rosen wrote.


Justice Lee Johnson was the court’s lone dissenter, objecting to the decision to uphold the death sentence, which Johnson believes is a violation of the Kansas Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.


Johnson revived the legal arguments made in other Kansas Supreme Court cases that were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, those of Reginald Carr, Jonathan Carr and Sidney Gleason. He argued the court’s failure to inform the Cheever jury of the burden of proof for mitigating circumstances justified vacating the death sentence.


“In other words, Cheever’s death sentence is not the product of an informed decision by a jury of his peers,” Johnson wrote. “Rather, a majority of this court is responsible for the death sentence in this case.”


Kansans for Justice, a group of friends and family members of the Carr brothers’ victims, said the Kansas Supreme Court made the correct decision Friday but doubted their motives.


“This court has only started upholding death penalty cases once their mistakes were pointed out publicly in 2014 on the previous five death penalty cases,” said Amy James, the group’s spokeswoman. “It’s an election year for them so we question their change in direction.”


The death of Samuels inspired changes to Kansas law, which restricted purchases of allergy medications used to make meth and harshened penalties for doing so. That legislation was known as the Sheriff Matt Samuels Act and was authored by Derek Schmidt, then a state senator and now the attorney general.


“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 in a statement Friday. “I’m encouraged the Kansas Supreme Court has agreed that this case was properly tried and the defendant was properly convicted and sentenced under applicable law.”

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinWingerter.


2013 United States Supreme Court Decision Kansas v. Cheever