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Opinion analysis: Court sends Fifth Amendment case back to Kansas

When Scott Cheever stood trial for the death of a local sheriff, he introduced a voluntary-intoxication defense, telling the jury that, because he had been using methamphetamines, the crime could not have been premeditated.  Cheever also presented testimony by a psychiatrist to bolster this defense.  Prosecutors countered with their own expert, who had examined Cheever pursuant to a court order in federal court proceedings (later dismissed) relating to the murder.  Cheever was convicted and sentenced to death, but the Kansas Supreme Court threw out his conviction, holding that the state’s use of expert testimony against Cheever violated his Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to testify against himself.  (I previewed Kansas v. Cheever for this blog and reported on the oral argument as well.)  

Yesterday, in a brief and unanimous opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court reversed the holding of the Kansas Supreme Court.  The Court relied on its 1987 decision in Buchanan v. Kentucky, which it characterized as holding that when “a defense expert who has examined the defendant testifies that the defendant lacked the requisite mental state to commit an offense, the prosecution may present psychiatric evidence in rebuttal.”  A contrary rule, the Court reasoned, would permit the defendant to undercut the adversarial process by giving the jury only one side of the story.

In this case, the Court continued, the Kansas Supreme Court had distinguished Buchanan on the ground that “voluntary intoxication” is not a “mental disease or defect” for purposes of Kansas law.  But, the Court explained, its decision in Buchanan permitted testimony to rebut evidence regarding a defendant’s “mental status,” rather than the narrower “mental disease or defect.”  In this case, “Cheever’s psychiatric evidence concerned his mental status because he used it to argue that he lacked the requisite mental capacity to premeditate”; prosecutors therefore could use their own court-ordered expert testimony to counter that evidence.

Although the Court reversed the decision of the Kansas Supreme Court, the case is not over.  Cheever also argues that, even if the state were generally allowed to introduce expert testimony to rebut the psychiatric evidence that he introduced, in this case the testimony went beyond the scope of what either the Constitution or Kansas law allows.  However, because the Kansas Supreme Court did not consider this issue, the Court remanded the case for additional proceedings – which, as I noted in my preview, may have been Cheever’s best hope all along.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: Court sends Fifth Amendment case back to Kansas, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 12, 2013, 9:07 PM),