Judge: Justice Department must decide soon over death penalty

? A federal judge has given the Department of Justice until the end of June to decide whether to seek the death penalty against the man accused of killing Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot on Thursday also told the defense team for Scott Cheever it has three weeks to challenge the legality of statements he made to authorities after the Jan. 19 shooting.

Cheever, 23, faces two federal murder charges, both of which carry a potential death sentence. He initially was charged in state district court in Greenwood County, but because the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty unconstitutional in December, officials decided to send the case to federal court so a death sentence could be an option.

Samuels, 42, was shot while trying to serve a search warrant at a home in the county’s Hilltop area. A federal grand jury in March indicted Cheever and others on charges of making methamphetamine in the house where Samuels was killed. The indictment also accuses Cheever of killing Samuels so he wouldn’t be a witness to a drug crime.

Federal prosecutors can seek the death penalty under more than 40 instances, including the two charges Cheever faces.

Before federal prosecutors in Wichita can pursue the death penalty, they have to get written approval from U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Lanny Welch told Belot that meetings have been scheduled for June 6 with the Department of Justice’s capital crimes unit. Welch said prosecutors were told it routinely takes 30 to 45 days for a death sentence case to be approved.

“I won’t allow that,” Belot said. “They’ll have to have all their work done by June 30. If I don’t do that, it will be the end of July or August before we hear from them.”

To help defense attorneys meet their deadline to challenge Cheever’s arrest, questioning and law enforcement searches, Belot ordered the government to turn over documents related to search warrants on Friday.

Welch said prosecutors plan to file another indictment against Cheever on Tuesday. Such “superseding indictments” can include added charges or simply make minor changes in the original document.