Supreme Court Action: Fifth Amendment Rights and Expert Psychiatric Evidence

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning.  That case is Kansas v. Cheever (12-609).  It concerns whether the prosecution’s use of court-ordered testimony by an expert to rebut expert testimony by the defense’s expert in a criminal case violates a defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights.  The Court held that it does not.

Cheever and his friends were high on meth when he was warned that officers were on their way to arrest him.  He tried to escape but his car had a flat tire.  He ultimately hid in a bedroom with a .44 revolver.  He heard steps and stepped out of the bedroom and shot and killed Officer Matthew Samuels.  He shot at others as well, though only Officer Samuels was hit.

Cheever was charged with capital murder.  The Kansas Supreme Court held in an unrelated case that the Kansas death penalty scheme was unconstitutional.  Prosecutors dismissed the charges and let federal prosecutors charge Cheever under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994.  Cheever indicated that he would defend by introducing expert evidence relating to his ability to form specific intent due to meth intoxication.  The federal court ordered Cheever to submit to a psychiatric exam to assess how the meth how affected him when he shot Samuels.  Michael Welner interviewed Cheever for five hours.

Cheever’s counsel became unable to continue in the early stages of the jury selection.  The federal judge suspended the proceedings and later dismissed them without prejudice.  In the meantime, the Supreme Court reviewed the Kansas death penalty scheme and found it constitutional.  Kansas prosecutors then brought a second prosecution against Cheever.  He presented a voluntary-intoxication defense and argued that his meth use rendered him incapable of premeditation.  He offered supportive testimony from Roswell Lee Evans, a specialist in psychiatric pharmacy and dean of the Auburn University School of Pharmacy.

The State sought to introduce testimony from Michael Welner as rebuttal to Evans’ testimony.  Cheever objected as he had not voluntarily agreed to the interview with Welner.  The judge allowed the testimony in part because Evans relied on Welner’s report.  The jury convicted Cheever at the end of the trial and imposed a death sentence.

The Kansas Supreme Court vacated Cheever’s conviction and sentence.  It held that Cheever’s Fifth Amendment rights had been violated by introducing Welner’s rebuttal testimony.  The Kansas Supreme Court distinguished Supreme Court precedent, Buchanan v. Kentucky, to the contrary.  Buchanan allowed limited introduction of court-ordered examination for the limited purpose of rebutting a mental-status defense.  The Kansas Supreme Court distinguished Buchanan on the grounds that voluntary intoxication was not a “mental disease or defect” under Kansas law.

The Supreme Court reversed.  It reaffirmed Buchanan saying that when a defendant raises the issue of mental state with expert testimony, he cannot block the State’s rebuttal.  It disagreed with the Kansas Supreme Court’s characterization of voluntary intoxication not being a mental disease or defect.  The Court stated that its precedents are not that narrow.  It uses the term “mental-status defense” which includes the use of expert testimony as to a defendant’s mens rea, the capacity to commit the offense or the ability to premeditate.  Once the issue is raised through expert testimony, it can be countered with additional expert testimony.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Mark

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