Kansas court upholds death sentence for sheriff's killing

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Posted: Jul 22, 2016 5:39 PM
Kansas court upholds death sentence for sheriff's killing

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday upheld the death sentence imposed against a man who fatally shot a sheriff during a 2005 drug raid.

Kansas hasn't executed anyone in more than 50 years, and Friday's decision in Scott Cheever's case is only the second time the court has upheld a death sentence under the state's 1994 capital punishment law.

An execution by lethal injection isn't likely to be scheduled soon, but state Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement, "today's ruling marks the end of the first line of appeals in this case."

Cheever acknowledged shooting Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels as Samuels tried to serve a warrant at a rural home about 75 miles northeast of Wichita, but Cheever's attorney argued that he was too high on methamphetamine for the crime to be premeditated.

The slain sheriff's son, Heath Samuels, is now serving as interim sheriff in his father's old job in Greenwood County. He said he was "very excited" to see the court system still works. The family supports the death penalty, he said.

"My dad had to pay the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "I don't think this is any different than what the defendant should pay."

The decision came only days after a Kansas City, Kansas, police captain was shot to death in his patrol car while searching for a suspect in a drive-by shooting and only weeks after fatal attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Kansas court has faced scrutiny over its handling of past capital cases.

The Kansas court in 2012 ordered a new trial for Cheever, concluding that his constitutional right against self-incrimination was violated when prosecutors used a court-ordered mental evaluation from a different trial against him. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision in 2013.

The court's 6-1 majority did conclude there were several errors in Greenwood County District Judge Michael Ward's handling of the sentencing proceedings, including in his instructions to jurors. But the court concluded the errors had "little if any effect" on the jury's decision to recommend a death sentence.

"Thus, no issue raised by Cheever warrants reversal," Justice Eric Rosen wrote for the majority.

Dissenting Justice Lee Johnson disagreed, accusing the majority of "donning the mantle of super-juror here." He also has said previously that he believes the death penalty itself violates the state constitution.

A state public defender representing Cheever in his appeals did not return a telephone message seeking comment.

Cheever initially was charged in federal court because the Kansas Supreme Court had declared the state's capital punishment law unconstitutional weeks before the murder, leaving it in limbo. But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that 2004 decision, preserving the law, and Cheever went to trial in state court in 2007.

The Kansas court put its review of Cheever's case on hold again last year because three other death penalty rulings from the state were before the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation's highest court again in January reversed the Kansas court, settling issues that could have forced a new sentencing in the Cheever case.

Samuels was shot while serving arrest warrants on Cheever for allegedly stealing firearms from his stepfather and not reporting to his parole officer.

A defense expert had argued that Cheever's brain had been damaged by meth use. The U.S. Supreme Court said that because Cheever's defense raised the issue of brain damage, prosecutors could present testimony from a different trial by a mental health expert that Cheever killed because he had an anti-social personality.

Cheever is among 10 men who've been sentenced to die and could still face execution under the state's 1994 death penalty law, though the state's last executions, by hanging, were in 1965.

The Kansas court previously had upheld only one death sentence, ruling last year against convicted serial killer John E. Robinson Sr., who trolled for female victims online and was tied to murders dating to 1984.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP legislators have criticized the court for overturning other death sentences. The court's critics are hoping to oust four of its seven justices in the November election, when voters decide whether they're retained for another six years.

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Associated Press writer Roxana Hegeman contributed to this report from Wichita.

Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .