Guns, crystal meth and a psych exam where all grist for the Supreme Court today. In a unanimous decision the justices reinstated the conviction and death sentence in a high-profile Kansas case.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: When county Sheriff Matthew Samuels and two deputies arrived to arrest Scott Cheever for stealing firearms from his stepfather, Cheever was waiting for them. As the sheriff walked up the stairs, Cheever stepped out of the bedroom where he'd been hiding and shot the sheriff in the chest. Moments later he returned to shoot the sheriff, now on the floor and bleeding, again.

Charged with capital murder, Cheever claimed that he had been cooking and injecting himself with methamphetamines all day when the crime occurred. And that he was so drunk with drugs he was incapable of forming the necessary intent to kill.

When the case got to the U.S. Supreme Court, the question was whether a court-ordered psychiatric exam that took place before trial and over defense counsel's objections could be used by the prosecution at trial to rebut the defense claim that Cheever did not have the requisite intent to kill.

At trial, the defense called Roswell Lee Evans, dean of the Auburn University School of Pharmacy, who testified that Cheever's brain had been damaged by long-term methamphetamine use. Evans also testified that on the day of the killing, Cheever's actions were very much influenced by his acute intoxication from meth.

To rebut that testimony, the prosecution called Michael Welner, the psychiatrist who'd conducted the court ordered psychiatric evaluation. He testified that Cheever shot the sheriff because of his antisocial personality, not because his brain was impaired by methamphetamines. The jury sentenced Cheever to death. But the Kansas Supreme Court threw out the conviction, ruling Cheever's constitutional right not to incriminate himself had been violated when prosecutors were allowed to put on evidence from the court ordered psychiatric exam.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed unanimously. Writing for the Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that when a defendant presents evidence though a psychological expert who's examined him, the government likewise is permitted to use the only effective means of challenging that evidence: testimony from an expert who has also examined him. Any other rule, she said, would undermine the adversarial process and allow a defendant to provide the jury with a one-sided and potentially inaccurate picture of his mental state at the time of the crime.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.



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