March 01, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court Finds No Right Against Self-Incrimination in Connection with Court-Ordered Evaluation

On December 11, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed a Kansas Supreme Court decision that had overturned Scott Cheever’s conviction and death sentence due to a violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Mr. Cheever was convicted of killing a law enforcement officer in state court. Prior his state trial, Mr. Cheever had been charged in federal court and had filed a notice that he intended to raise a voluntary intoxication defense based on his use of methamphetamines in the hours before the shooting. The district court ordered a psychiatric evaluation under federal rules of criminal procedure. Mr. Cheever submitted to the examination, but the federal trial was suspended when defense counsel became unable to continue, and the proceedings were later dismissed without prejudice.

Following this dismissal, the State commenced prosecution in state court. At his state trial, Mr. Cheever presented a voluntary intoxication defense supported by expert testimony. The State then offered rebuttal testimony from the psychiatrist who evaluated Mr. Cheever in advance of his federal trial. Although defense counsel objected to this evidence as a violation of Mr. Cheever’s right against self-incrimination, the trial court agreed with the State and ruled that the testimony was necessary to rebut Mr. Cheever’s voluntary intoxication defense. Following Mr. Cheever’s conviction and death sentence, Mr. Cheever appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court and prevailed. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Buchanan v. Kentucky, which held that States may introduce the results of a court-ordered mental examination for the purpose of rebutting a mental status defense, did not apply to Mr. Cheever because voluntary intoxication is not a “mental disease or defect.”

Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Sotomayor rejected the Kansas Supreme Court’s interpretation of Buchanan as too narrow and reaffirmed that “where 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.” Justice Sotomayor further noted that “[a]ny other rule would undermine the adversarial process” and that the Court’s decision “harmonizes with the principle that when a defendant chooses to testify in a criminal case, the Fifth Amendment does not allow him to refuse to answer related questions on cross-examination.”

Finally, the Court declined to address Mr. Cheever’s contention that the Fifth Amendment imposes limits on the State’s ability to introduce rebuttal evidence regarding a defendant’s mental status. Justice Sotomayor noted that Buchanan held that “testimony based on a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation is admissible only for a 'limited rebuttal purpose.'” But because the Kansas Supreme Court had not addressed whether the rebuttal testimony had exceeded the scope of the Fifth Amendment, the Court declined the address the issue “in the first instance.” The Court vacated the judgment of the Kansas Supreme Court and remanded for further proceedings.