U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Hits 6th Circuit for Overturning Double Murder Conviction on 'Flimsiest of Rationales'


The U.S. Supreme Court is calling out the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for overturning a 29-year-old double murder conviction based in part on a prosecutor’s closing argument.

The 6th Circuit offered “the flimsiest of rationales” for overturning the conviction of David Eugene Matthews, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a per curiam opinion (PDF). The appeals court’s decision “is a textbook example of what the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) proscribes: ‘using federal habeas corpus review as a vehicle to second-guess the reasonable decisions of state courts,’ ” the Supreme Court said.

Matthews had claimed he was suffering from an extreme emotional disturbance when he killed his estranged wife and mother-in-law at their home, requiring a reduction in the charge against him to manslaughter. The 6th Circuit ruled the burden of proof had wrongly been shifted to Matthews on the issue, and prosecutors had failed to prove Matthews did not have such a disturbance. But the jury instructions were adequate, the Supreme Court said, and there was ample evidence showing Matthews did not have such a disturbance. “It is abundantly clear that the Kentucky Supreme Court’s rejection of Matthews’ sufficiency claim is controlling,” the Supreme Court said.

The appeals court had also found a denial of due process based on the prosecutor’s suggestion during closing arguments that Matthews had colluded defense lawyer David Busse and psychiatrist Lee Chutkow to manufacture the emotional disturbance defense. But the prosecutor later told jurors he was not suggesting the lawyer was unethical and not saying the psychiatrist was lying, the Supreme Court said. Instead, the Supreme Court said, the prosecutor was suggesting that the defendant had a motive to exaggerate his emotional disturbance.

“The 6th Circuit cited no precedent of this court in support of its conclusion that due process prohibits a prosecutor from emphasizing a criminal defendant’s motive to exaggerate exculpatory facts,” the Supreme Court said.

The court reprinted part the prosecutor’s argument in a footnote, including this section:

“He’s arraigned, he meets with his attorney and either he tells his attorney, I did it or I didn’t do it. One or the other. But, the attorney knows what the evidence is. … And what does his attorney think? His attorney sees all this evidence, and he’s going through his mind, what kind of legal excuse can I have? What is this man’s defense? Self protection? No, there’s no proof. … Protection of another? The defendant’s mother is at home. … He isn’t protecting her. … Intoxication? Yeah, well, he was drinking that night. Maybe that will mean something. But that isn’t enough, Ladies and Gentlemen. Mr. Busse has to contact a psychiatrist to see his client … Mr. David Eugene Matthews sees his defense in the form of Dr. Chutkow, and do you think this guy is aware of what’s going on? He’s competent. He can work with his attorney, and he enhances his story to Dr. Chutkow. Yeah, I was drinking. I was drinking a lot. I was taking a lot of pills, too, and let me tell you about the pills I was taking. Don’t you think he has a purpose in enhancing his story to the psychiatrist? … It’s the defense of last resort, Ladies and Gentlemen. He has no excuse for his conduct, but that’s his only way out.”

The Supreme Court said the prosecutor later disavowed any suggestion of collusion with this statement: “And that’s not to say that Mr. Busse is unethical. Not at all. He is entitled to the best defense he can get, but that’s the only defense he has, what the doctor has to say, and that’s not to say that the doctor gets on the stand and perjures himself. He’s telling you the truth. He wouldn’t perjure himself for anything.”

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