Supreme Court

Supreme Court Upholds State Law Limiting the Use of the Insanity Defense

Kansas “will not wholly exonerate a defendant on the ground that his illness prevented him from recognizing his criminal act as morally wrong.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a Kansas law limiting the scope of the insanity defense does not violate the U.S. Constitution. "Defining the precise relationship between criminal culpability and mental illness involves examining the workings of the brain, the purposes of the criminal law, the ideas of free will and responsibility," declared the majority opinion of Justice Elena Kagan. And "that is a project for state governance, not constitutional law."

The case is Kahler v. Kansas. James Kahler murdered his wife, his two daughters, and his wife's grandmother after his wife divorced him. His lawyers argue that when he committed those murders "he was experiencing overwhelming obsessive compulsions and extreme emotional disturbance, and may have disassociated from reality." A medical expert testified during trial that Kahler's mental state was so "severely degraded…that he couldn't refrain from doing what he did."

The insanity defense has a long pedigree in Anglo-American law. To "establish a defence on the ground of insanity," ruled Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Tindal of England's Court of Common Pleas in M'Naghten's Case (1843), "it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, [1] as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or [2] if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong."

Most U.S. states follow the two-part standard spelled out in M'Naghten's Case. But Kansas does not. It follows only the first part. "It is a defense to a prosecution under any statute that the defendant, as a result of mental disease or defect, lacked the mental state required as an element of the offense charged," state law holds. "Mental disease or defect is not otherwise a defense."

Kahler's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to rule this approach unconstitutional. Kansas law "accounts for only intent, not lack of moral culpability. But even severely mentally ill people can form the intent required to commit a crime, even if they do not understand that it is wrong," Kahler's legal team told the justices. "Thus, in Kansas, so long as a defendant intentionally kills another human being—even if he delusionally believes the devil told him to do it, or that the victim was an enemy soldier trying to kill him—he is guilty of murder. The upshot is that Kansas criminally punishes people who are, by any definition, insane. The Constitution prohibits that result."

Today the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not prohibit that result. "Kansas, unlike many States, will not wholly exonerate a defendant on the ground that his illness prevented him from recognizing his criminal act as morally wrong," wrote Justice Kagan. "The issue here is whether the Constitution's Due Process Clause forces Kansas to do so….We hold that the Clause imposes no such requirement." Kagan's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

Writing in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, faulted the majority for shortchanging both "Anglo-American legal history" and "basic principles long inherent in the nature of the criminal law itself." Kansas has "eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries: that the defendant, due to mental illness, lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy," Breyer protested.

The Supreme Court's decision in Kahler v. Kansas is available here.

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  1. I’ve always figgered that if you claim to be insane and thus not guilty of murder (or any other crime), you have just admitted that you need a guardian for the rest of your life, or until previous victims have agreed that you are cured and should be released. I realize this is not legal reality.

    1. I should clarify that I don’t care whether the claim is just temporary insanity or a full-blown permanent variety. If you could flip insane enough to murder people, with no prior hints or clues that you were going to flip, you could just as easily do so again, which makes you even more worthy of a full time permanent guardian with even less chance of release for being cured.

      1. If I was writing the law from scratch (I have a magic wand). Insanity wouldn’t be a defense against guilt at all. Though it would be a mitigating factor to be considered for sentencing.

        1. I think that sounds about right. The point of fact would be a crime was committed and the state is able to prove the defendant was the culprit. Hense, guilty.

          Sentencing is the key. Putting that person in prison is almost as dangerous as putting him back on the street. There is no such thing as mental health treatment nor the capability to manage it in prison short of complete isolation. In the rare cases where insanity is the factor for the execution of the crime there needs to be a medical guardianship option.

        2. THIS is what I’ve been saying for years. The person did it, so guilty, but not fully due the normal penalty.

        3. My understanding was that pleading insanity was pleading to go to a mental hospital until you were deemed no longer a danger to society (which is supposed to be an indeterminate sentence that includes the potential for the rest of time). Are they really letting people back on the street after claiming insanity?

          1. “My understanding was that pleading insanity was pleading to go to a mental hospital until you were deemed no longer a danger to society (which is supposed to be an indeterminate sentence that includes the potential for the rest of time).”

            Not exactly, it’s also possible to plead temporary insanity that is over at the point of trial.

            Even if the court does commit the defendant to a mental institution, many are private facilities and release is completely under control of the doctors at the facility, not the court.

            There are several high profile cases where defendants successfully plead insanity and were released as “cured” in less than a year.

        4. Yes, that defense does clearly say you are a danger to others if you are not mentally competent to know what right from wrong.

          1. Perhaps it is the issue of “punishment” and “justice” in the sense that one wrong deserves a reciprocal harm done to “pay the price” I have fundamental issue with, but the notion of prevention seems to be a pivotal justification for criminal laws and the process of law in general allowing process to reign in dangers rather than the vigilanteism that would be needed to protect oneself if courts did not lock away or otherwise prevent repeat acts by the same person.

            While certainly I DO understand that convicting a sane person of something they didn’t know was wrong is important criteria for punishment (because, presumably having been informed an warned, they would not do it again and do not pose a demonstrated risk) as Mathew points out, someone who has attested they are so insane they didn’t know a violent act to another person was wrong has proven they are a risk to neighbors going forward both by act and by lack of ability to comprehend .

            The police power of the state is a fine justification for depriving people of freedoms who both have violated others and have no capacity to safely judge or constrain their danger to others in the future ? Maintaining order with anticipatable rules and consequences does not seem heavy handed but is not about “justice” if justice means punishment in exchange – it is about ‘justice’ if ‘justice’ means ‘justly restricted future freedoms for the safety of others and no alternative safe response’ ?

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  2. Are there states that don’t recognize the insanity defense at all? If that’s Constitutional, surely Kansas’s truncated M’Naughton test is too.

    1. FindLaw has a summary of the defense by state.

      1. Interesting — says Kansas has abolished the insanity defense.

  3. Writing in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, faulted the majority for shortchanging both “Anglo-American legal history”

    SO not woke.

    1. “faulted the majority for shortchanging both “Anglo-American legal history””

      And what?

    2. A “wise Latina” is the absolute last person to interpret “A-A legal hx.”
      This welcome opinion signals SCOTUS’ sea change. Bon voyage, bad ship Warren!

      1. Some cultural appropriation going on!

    3. They sound kinda racist to me!

  4. in Kansas, so long as a defendant intentionally kills another human being—even if he delusionally believes . . . that the victim was an enemy soldier trying to kill him—he is guilty of murder.

    Is that really true? If the person is so delusional he believes that the victim is an enemy soldier in war time, then does that not negate the intent to commit an illegal crime?

    What if the thinks the victim is a white-tailed deer, and it is now hunting season?

    1. That was the assertion of his lawyer which I thought was almost certainly false.

    2. This, some vet who has a PTSD flashback and doesn’t recognize his wife doesn’t need to be punished for a crime he didn’t willingly commit, he needs to be locked under psychiatric care until the risk of him doing it again is either gone or he dies.

      1. Nobody is disagreeing there.

  5. A lot of states took a hard look at the insanity defense when Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of after he shot Reagan. It was kind of universally decided at the time that even the insane should be jailed/hospitalized in the case of murder, or attempted murder in Hinckley’s case, hence the guilty but insane option. Don’t know if that was the right thing to do but it was politically favored at the time.

  6. A medical expert testified during trial that Kahler’s mental state was so “severely degraded…that he couldn’t refrain from doing what he did.”

    Demonstrating yet again how full of shit “experts” can be.

    He refrained from an untold infinity of actions, but *these* actions he couldn’t refrain from.

    It’s absurd on its face.

    1. If anyone actually manages to fit that description, then he is not sufficiently intelligent to be considered a human being, IMO.

      1. Nice comment! I think everyone went to visit Tranny for Men and chattig there, that’s for sure!

  7. Hard to believe three SCOTUS Justices believe the Constitution requires states to include an insanity defense in their criminal law. Also, M’Naughton was decided in 1843 and the Constitution was ratified as of 1792 or so.

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  10. I have long been of the opinion that an “Insanity Defense” should not be considered during the determination of guilt or innocence but only be admissible during the sentencing phase of a trial where it is being determined how a guilty party is to be dealt with.

  11. Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, reason(s) enough to vote for Trump in the next election.

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