On the 5th Amendment and Kansas v. Cheever [Updated with decision]

The other case SB is watching this week is a 5th Amendment case to come out of Kansas.  Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, October 16th.

The 5-cent explanation:  This case sounds like an episode of Breaking Bad that came to life and went horribly, horribly wrong (or just ended up like a lot of Breaking Bad episodes actually did). Scott Cheever shot and killed Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels in January of 2005.  Cheever was taking and making methamphetamine when he was busted by police.  He confessed to the shooting, was moved to a federal court, and claimed he lacked the pre-meditation classification of a first degree murder charge, a capital offense.  In Cheever’s opinion, he was so high on meth that it compromised his ability to reason therefore his altered state negated any pre-meditation, and he should not have to face a death penalty.  A federal court ordered a psychiatric evaluation but the case was later moved to a state court where another evaluation was ordered.  The question in this case is whether or not his words shared with the first psychiatrist can be used against him at the state court where he’s looking at the death penalty.  A lower court judge said Cheever’s words could be used against him, that his 5th Amendment right was waived, but the Kansas Supreme Court overturned that ruling and ruled that his words to the first psychiatrist were privileged and could not be used against him.

The 10-cent explanation:  Scott Cheever, 32, shot and killed Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels in January of 2005.  Cheever had been taking meth for nine days, had little to no sleep, and had something like 150 units of meth in his system around the time of the shooting (scary note: According to his attorney and former Solicitor General Neal Katyal, it can only take 80 units to kill a human.)  Sheriff Samuels arrived to bust Cheever and his friends taking and making meth at a residence, at which time Cheever hid in a closet at that residence.  Cheever shot Samuels at point-blank range when the sheriff opened the closet door and found him inside.  He confessed to the shooting, was moved to a federal court, and claimed he lacked the pre-meditation classification of a first degree murder charge.  First degree murder is obviously the kind of capital charge that can carry a sentence of death in some states if one is found guilty.  In Cheever’s opinion, he was so high on meth that it compromised his ability to reason, therefore his altered state negated any pre-meditation, and thus he should not have to pay the ultimate price of death.

The federal court ordered a psychiatrist to evaluate him to determine Cheever’s mental state.  After a five-hour evaluation, the psychiatrist determined Cheever knew what he was doing when he fired the weapon killing Samuels and that he satisfied the pre-meditation requirement.  However, after a change in courts, Cheever’s case was pushed back to the Kansas state court.  Cheever entered the same compromised frame-of-mind defense, but was now definitely looking at a capital charge, as Kansas had recently reinstated the death penalty.  The state court also ordered a psychiatric evaluation, but this time a different psychiatrist “testified that Cheever’s use of meth kept him from making sound decisions [and] told the jury that Cheever’s meth use left him ‘no judgment at all’ on the day he killed Samuels.” [The rest of this article from the Wichita Eagle is here]

This case is technically not about the medical experts’ opposing evaluations, the death penalty, or Cheever’s  state of mind – it’s about Cheever’s 5th Amendment right.  The 5th Amendment protects you from incriminating yourself, or saying something that would further an appearance of guilt or wrong-doing giving the impression that you are guilty.  It’s why, in many criminal cases, defendants do not take the stand to testify on their own behalf.  OJ Simpson, Scott Peterson – these guys invoked their 5th Amendment right when they chose not to take the stand for fear their words would hurt their chances of getting a fair, impartial trial.  In some cases, words could be taken out of context and hurt a defendant.  In other cases, they can be the silver bullet that frees a wrongly accused defendant.  This case isn’t going to result in the latter – Cheever admitted his guilt – but the former is of concern to him and his attorney.  Testimony from Cheever’s first psychiatrist – the one he spent 5 hours talking to – was called into the state court and was used against him.

Essentially the question in this case is whether or not the words Cheever shared with the first psychiatrist can be used against him at the state court where he is looking at a death sentence.  A lower court judge said his words could be used against him, that his 5th Amendment right was waived, but the Kansas Supreme Court said his words could not be used against him.  The Attorney General for Kansas petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court which is how it arrived on SCOTUS’ docket today.

Neal Katyal, attorney for the defendant, explains the case in this video:

Neal Katyal, former Solicitor General and pro bono attorney for the defendant, Scott Cheever.

Neal Katyal, former Solicitor General and pro bono attorney for the defendant, Scott Cheever.

Link to the audio of the oral arguments is here, thanks to Oyez.

UPDATE: Unanimous SCOTUS opinion finds testimony of the first psych evaluation can be used against Cheever and is not a violation of his 5th Amendment rights.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the opinion and had this to say about the defendant’s invocation of the 5th Amendment in his criminal proceedings:

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The link to the long form version of the decision is embedded in this pic. Check it out.

5-cent explanation of this decision:  Scott Cheever submitted to the first psychological evaluation when it was ordered by the federal court.  After a 5-hour discussion with Cheever, the evaluator, Dr. Michael Welner, stated Cheever’s motivations were the result of “antisocial behaviors,” not the product of brain damage caused by Cheever’s use of high doses of methamphetamine.  When the case was moved from federal court back to the Kansas state court, he submitted to another psych evaluation and this time the evaluator, Roswell Lee Evans, found Cheever’s actions in shooting Samuels were the result of significant brain damage likely caused by the drugs.  These two expert opinions are critical to determining whether or not Cheever’s actions were premeditated.

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If the opinion of one expert (who provides favorable testimony) can stand trial, then so can the other (who doesn’t).  In other words, the court can’t allow only the testimony of those that help your case without allowing equally relevant testimony that doesn’t help your case.  This would be unbalanced and a detriment to the prosecution, whose job it is to prove guilt.  In both cases, Cheever’s words were willingly given to the evaluators and their subsequent findings and testimonies do not violate his 5th Amendment right.

This is a loss for Cheever and positive news for the family of the deceased (Sheriff Samuels).  However, in the last lines of the Court’s decision, they remanded the case back to the Kansas Supreme Court for further proceedings, likely regarding the death sentence, but add that such proceedings should not be “inconsistent with this opinion.”  According to Scott Cheever’s defense team, quoted in the Wichita Eagle, they’re looking at appealing and stalling a potential execution for as much as a decade.

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