Death-Row Inmate Pushes High Court for Insanity Standard

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — As the Supreme Court opened its fall term Monday with a case about what it takes to plead insanity, Justice Stephen Breyer offered a hypothetical example of two criminals — one who believed a dog had told him to shoot another person, the other who shot another person because he believed that person was a dog.

“They are both crazy,” Breyer said. “And why does Kansas say one is guilty, the other is not guilty? “

In 2009, there was no dog hallucination, but James Kahler had been experiencing depression symptoms after his wife left him and took the kids.

Fired from his job and living with his parents in Kansas, Kahler entered the home of his former in-laws where the family had spent Thanksgiving. He shot and killed his ex-wife, two teenage daughters and his mother-in-law, sparing only his son.

When Kahler went on trial, Kansas barred his insanity defense pursuant to 1996 law that says mental illness cannot excuse a defendant from knowing his actions were wrong.

Facing the death penalty now after he was convicted, Kahler says this approach to the insanity defense violates the Eighth and 14th Amendments.

His attorney Sarah Schrup argued Monday before the Supreme Court that criminal defendants have a due-process right to mount a case for insanity, and that it is cruel and unusual to sentence a person with a mental deficiency the same way it would sentence a mentally competent individual.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that reforming the rules for insanity defenses could lead to the adoption of a model where defendants are judged “guilty but insane,” and thus confined either to a mental institution or prison, depending on an assessment of their mental capacity.

Schrup, who is with Northwestern University’s Supreme Court Practicum, argued that such a scheme, though common in other nations, would violate due process.

“I think it would because the conviction itself carries collateral consequences that — and we have never, as a country, treated the insane as culpable,” she said. “And that conviction would impose collateral consequences on the insane person who really should be excused.”

In arguments for the state meanwhile, Kansas Solicitor General Toby Crouse said defining insanity would be a waste of time, noting that the historical basis for a right-versus-wrong test cannot even be said to be deeply rooted since it first cropped up in the 1800s.

Crouse noted that the state still allows defendants to tackle morality perceptions after their conviction, drawing pushback from Justice Sonya Sotomayor.

“You’re saying the same thing with something like duress: I intend to kill someone, but it’s because somebody is holding a gun to my head. All 50 states would let you off,” Sotomayor said. “But you’re now saying it’s okay to stigmatize you with a criminal conviction even though, in fact, you may be insane.”

“I’m saying what the state of Kansas has done is it has defined its mental illness defense consistent with what the historical teachings are,” Crouse replied. “Criminal intent was what handled everything with regard to criminal insanity.”

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