The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday overturned a capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial for a man sentenced to death for killing a Greenwood County sheriff in 2005.
The unanimous ruling sends back the case of Scott D. Cheever, who was convicted in October 2007 for the shooting death of Sheriff Matt Samuels. Samuels was killed while serving a warrant at a rural southeastern Kansas home where meth was made, about 75 miles south of Topeka.
The justices ruled Cheever's constitutional rights were violated when a psychiatrist disclosed his psychological records during the trial without his consent. The testimony was based on Cheever's evaluations when the case was in federal court before it was remanded to state court.
The justices ruled that Cheever had to consent to material from the psychiatrist's exam being used in court because he wasn't pursuing what amounted to an insanity defense. Instead, the justices said, he was arguing that he was drug-impaired, not permanently mentally ill.
The Supreme Court said Cheever's right not to incriminate himself, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, had been violated. The justices also they couldn't say beyond a reasonable doubt that the testimony didn't contribute to the capital murder verdict, adding, "this constitutional error cannot be declared harmless."
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who was serving in the Kansas Senate at the time of Samuels' death and Cheever's conviction, said his office was reviewing Friday's ruling. He didn't indicate if the state would retry the case seeking the death penalty.
"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.
The ruling leaves nine men still under sentence of death since Kansas reinstated the law in 1994 with the method being lethal injection. The state's last execution was in 1965 by hanging.
The justices agreed with Cheever's attorney, Debra Wilson, who said Dr. Michael Welner went beyond the scope of questioning when he offered testimony that Cheever had anti-social personality disorder.
Welner interviewed Cheever for 5½ hours as ordered by a federal judge and was called as a rebuttal witness to arguments presented by Cheever's defense.
The court said Welner's testimony stood out because he was the last witness the jury heard during Cheever's trial and his testimony was "extensive and devastating."
"He employed a method of testifying that virtually put words into Cheever's mouth," the justices wrote in their unsigned opinion. "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."
The justices said that because Cheever's constitutional rights were violated, they would have had to conclude with "the highest level of certainty" that the error didn't affect the outcome to avoid overturning the convictions.
Page 2 of 2 - "We do not have that level of certainty," the court said.
Messages seeking comment were left for Wilson.
Cheever admitted he shot Samuels and fired on other officers but argued he was high on meth and incapable of premeditation when he began shooting. Expert witnesses testified that Cheever demonstrated the effects of long-term meth use, including suspicious behavior toward those around him.
Cheever's conviction for manufacturing of methamphetamines 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, which Schmidt authored while he was serving as Senate majority leader in the Kansas Legislature.