The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday limited the rights of criminal defendants, declaring that states can bar them from using the so-called insanity defense in a ruling involving a Kansas man sentenced to death for killing four members of his family.
The justices ruled 6-3 that a 1995 Kansas law eliminating the insanity defense - which bars holding criminally responsible mentally impaired defendants who do not know right from wrong - did not violate the U.S. Constitution. The justices affirmed a 2018 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court upholding the conviction of the man at the center of the case, James Kraig Kahler.
Under the Kansas law, defendants cannot argue they were insane and unable to make a moral judgment as an excuse to criminal liability. But the law allowed defendants to argue that, due to mental defect, they did not intend to commit the crime.
In a ruling authored by liberal Justice Elena Kagan, the court rejected the argument that the Constitution’s guarantee of due process requires the acquittal of any defendant who is unable to tell right from wrong.
“Contrary to Kahler’s view, Kansas takes account of mental health at both trial and sentencing. It has just not adopted the particular insanity defense Kahler would like. That choice is for Kansas to make,” Kagan wrote.
Kahler used a high-powered rifle in 2009 to shoot his wife and two teenage daughters at the home of his wife’s grandmother, who he also killed. He spared his son, who was 9 years old at the time. Kahler carried out the killings the weekend after the Thanksgiving Day holiday and months after his wife filed for divorce and he had been fired from his job.
Kahler was diagnosed with major depression and obsessive personality disorder. A psychiatric expert hired by the defense said Kahler’s illness was so severe he “lost control” of his actions. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2011.
Kagan sided with the court’s five conservatives in the majority, with her three liberal colleagues dissenting.
Writing in dissent, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said he agreed with the majority that states have broad leeway in implementing the insanity defense.
“But here, Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense. Rather, it has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries,” Breyer wrote.
Idaho, Montana and Utah have like Kansas discarded the traditional insanity defense, while 45 other states, the federal criminal justice system and the District of Columbia have retained it. Alaska includes elements of both approaches.
Kahler’s lawyers argued that the Kansas law too easily punished people who are insane because even mentally ill individuals can intend to commit a crime even if they do not understand it is wrong.
Kansas argued that states should have the freedom to determine the extent to which mental illness should excuse criminal behavior. The state maintains that it has redefined, not abolished, the insanity defense, and that evidence of insanity is still used to determine intent.
The state further told the Supreme Court that even if the Constitution required an insanity test, Kahler was not actually insane.
As part of the court’s adjusted operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the ruling was issued online only along with three others in a departure from the normal practice of having the justices sit in their courtroom to announce their opinions from the bench.
Reporting by Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham