Nation & World News

Justices To Hear Cases On Self-Incrimination, Freezing Assets

By Nina Totenberg on October 16th, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases on Wednesday — one that focuses on the right against self-incrimination and another that looks at when prosecutors can seize defendants’ assets.

What Counts As Self-Incrimination?

The first arguments before the court Wednesday come in a murder case that tests whether a court-ordered psychiatric exam can be used to rebut a defendant’s claim that he had not formed the necessary intent to kill. The defendant claims that using the examination violated his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

In 2005, Scott Cheever shot and killed a sheriff during the course of an arrest. Cheever, then 24, had been addicted to methamphetamines since he was 17. He claimed that at the time of the killing, he had not slept in nine days, had just injected a near-lethal dose of the drug and was incapable of exercising judgment when the sheriff came to arrest him. In short, he contended that he was incapable of forming the necessary intent to kill — an element that is required to qualify a defendant for the death penalty.

The case took tortuous legal turns, dragging its way through both state and federal court, before Cheever was finally convicted in state court and sentenced to death.

The appeal of that conviction centers on a psychiatric exam that took place at the early stage of the case, prior to trial, and over defense counsel’s objection. A federal judge ordered the psychiatric exam when Cheever’s lawyer first notified the federal court that the defense intended to argue that Cheever did not have the requisite intent to kill.

For unrelated reasons, the federal prosecution was eventually dropped in favor of a state prosecution. But when the case went to trial in state court, Cheever pressed the same argument. The defense called its own expert witness to testify about the short- and long-term effects of methamphetamine use. That expert testified that Cheever was experiencing paranoid psychosis and could not have exercised any judgment when he killed the sheriff.

In response, the state called the psychiatrist who had conducted the court-ordered examination at the earlier stage of the case. That doctor testified that, while Cheever had antisocial personality disorder and was “impressed and awed” by “outlaws,” his mental state at the time was not significantly altered. In short, that the defendant could have intended to kill the sheriff.

The Kansas Supreme Court subsequently voided the conviction. It ruled unanimously that the state had violated Cheever’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by calling the state’s psychiatrist to testify.

The state then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices will hear arguments on Wednesday. The state argues that Cheever voluntarily waived his right against self-incrimination by introducing evidence of his mental state. Cheever’s attorney counters that presentation of evidence of mental state is not a waiver of the right against self-incrimination.

What Can Prosecutors Seize Before Trial?

The second of the two cases being argued Wednesday tests under what circumstances prosecutors may seize a defendant’s assets prior to trial. The defendants in the case claim the seizure of their assets is unconstitutional because it makes it impossible for them to pay their chosen lawyers to conduct a defense.

When the government began investigating Kerri and Brian Kaley for allegedly selling stolen medical supplies, the Kaleys fought back, contending that the medical supplies were not stolen at all. They knew that identical charges in another case had ended in a not-guilty verdict. So, they took out a $500,000 loan on their home and put it into a CD to pay their lawyers for a trial.

Federal prosecutors, however, then sought to freeze all their assets — an action that the Kaleys contend denied them the right to counsel and due process of law.

The couple is asking the Supreme Court to set down rules requiring a pretrial evidentiary hearing prior to allowing the seizure. Prosecutors counter that such a hearing would essentially be a mini-trial, giving defendants two bites at the apple after they are tried.

The case could have a significant impact on both prosecutors and defense lawyers. Groups on the right and the left have filed briefs on behalf of the Kaleys. They say that if the court sides with the Kaleys, it would deprive prosecutors of a heavy weapon used too aggressively and frequently to force guilty pleas on unwilling defendants. On the other hand, prosecutors contend that a decision favoring the Kaleys would encourage white-collar defense lawyers to represent wealthy defendants, regardless of the fact that the lawyers are being paid with their clients’ ill-gotten gain.

Isaac Chaput contributed to this report.

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