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Justices: Court-ordered psych evidence doesn’t violate 5th Amendment

Justices: Court-ordered psych evidence doesn’t violate 5th Amendment

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Defendants who offer a diminished capacity defense cannot seek to exclude rebuttal evidence from court-ordered mental evaluations on Fifth Amendment grounds, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kansas v. Cheever, No. 12-609.

The justices reversed a contrary ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court.

The defendant in the case was convicted of capital murder for the shooting death of a sheriff. At trial in federal court, the defendant had argued that he lacked the necessary murderous intent because he had been high on methamphetamines for days at the time of the shooting. Based on his defense, the judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation.

The defendant’s attorney fell ill, putting the federal trial on hold. Meanwhile, the death penalty was reinstated in Kansas and the defendant was charged in state court with capital murder. He again asserted a diminished capacity defense.

The state called the psychiatrist who evaluated the defendant at the order of the federal judge as a rebuttal witness. The doctor testified that based on his evaluation, the defendant did not suffer from diminished capacity due to drug use.

The defendant was convicted and sentenced to death, but the Kansas Supreme Court later reversed his conviction, holding that admitting the testimony of the court-ordered analyst violated Cheever’s right against self-incrimination because the psychiatric evaluation was compelled by a federal judge.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

“[W]here 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 Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the unanimous court. “Any other rule would undermine the adversarial process, allowing a defendant to provide the jury, through an expert operating as proxy, with a one-sided and potentially inaccurate view of his mental state at the time of the alleged crime.”

It was Sotomayor who gave the most obvious hint during oral arguments that the justices were not persuaded by the defendant’s argument, asking Cheever’s counsel at one point,

“Which way would you rather lose?”

The court rejected the position of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union that allowing evidence from court-ordered evaluations forces defendants to choose between forfeiting their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination or preserving their Eighth Amendment right to present mitigating evidence.

“When exercising the Eighth Amendment right subjects a defendant to a wide-ranging, intrusive probing into his mental processes by state agents, a capital defendant can be discouraged from offering such evidence at all,” stated the amicus brief submitted by the national ACLU and its Kansas and Western Missouri chapter.

But Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based criminal justice and victims’ rights organization, said after the ruling that allowing testimony from psychiatric experts is the only way give jurors a complete picture.

“An examination of the subject is essential for a testifying expert to do his job properly and for the jury to see the truth,” said Scheidegger, who wrote an amicus brief in the case supporting the prosecution. “If the defendant chooses to open the door with his own psychological expert, this evidence must be available to both sides.”

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