High Court Upholds Strict Insanity Standard in Kansas

WASHINGTON (CN) — A man who killed his two teen daughters, as well their mom and great-grandmother, failed Monday in his Supreme Court challenge of the law in Kansas for insanity pleas.

The murders occurred on Thanksgiving 2009. Months earlier, James Kahler’s wife, Karen, had left him and took the kids, a 9-year-old boy as well as the teen girls. Compounding his distress from the break-up, Kahler also lost his job that year and had to move in with his parents.

A tree blooms outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Kahler sought to plead insanity but was barred from doing so by the trial court as a 1996 Kansas law says mental illness cannot excuse a person from knowing their actions were wrong.

The Kansas Supreme Court subsequently upheld Kahler’s death sentence, finding that “due process does not mandate that a State adopt a particular insanity test.”

After oral arguments in October, the Supreme Court affirmed 6-3 Monday.

“A challenge like Kahler’s must surmount a high bar,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. “Under well-settled precedent a state rule about criminal liability — laying out either the elements of, or the defenses to a crime — violates due process only if it ‘offends some principal of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people, as to be ranked as fundamental.’”

The 24-page opinion relates the complicated history of the insanity defense, as well as the shifting understanding of insanity by doctors and scientists.

“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,” she wrote. “It is a project demanding hard choices among values, in a context replete with uncertainty, even at a single moment in time. And it is a project, if any is, that should be open to revision over time, as new medical knowledge emerges and as legal and moral norms evolve. Which is all to say that it is a project for state governance, not constitutional law.

“We therefore decline to require that Kansas adopt an insanity test turning on a defendant’s ability to recognize that his crime was morally wrong,” the opinion concludes. “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 — and, if it wishes, to remake and remake again as the future unfolds. No insanity rule in this country’s heritage or history was ever so settled as to tie a state’s hands centuries later.”

Kagan noted that the court has declined twice before to constitutionalize a particular version of the insanity defense, leaving such determinations largely open to the states.

“Here, uncertainties about the human mind loom large,” she wrote. “Even as some puzzles get resolved, others emerge. And those perennial gaps in knowledge intersect with differing opinions about how far, an in what ways, mental illness should excuse criminal conduct.”

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonya Sotomayor. Despite agreeing with the court that the Constitution gives states a long leash to define criminal procedures, Breyer said, in this instance, Kansas had entirely eliminated the core defense of culpability based on mental illness.

“Few doctrines are as deeply rooted in our common-law heritage as the insanity defense,” Breyer wrote. “Although English and early American resources differ in their linguistic formulations of the legal test for insanity, with striking consistency, they all express the same underlying idea: A defendant who, due to mental illness, lacks sufficient mental capacity to be held morally responsible for his actions cannot be found guilty of a crime.”

A calling card for the Clinton appointee, Breyer posed a hypothetical situation in his opinion of two individuals convicted on murder: One who thought the person he killed was a dog because of his mental illness, and another who thought his dog had ordered him to kill, because of the same deficiency. Under Kansas’ rule, Breyer noted that only the second individual would be convicted, based on intent.

“The defendant in prosecution two has no defense,” Breyer wrote. “Because he acted with the requisite level of intent, he must be convicted regardless of any role his mental illness played in his conduct.”

Breyer took issue with Kansas’ stated reason of administrative difficulty as a reason for abolishing the defense from its constitution. Kansas’ argument that the criminally insane should be held accountable for their “antisocial conduct” does nothing to combat consequences dealt to those individuals, he found.

“It is a conclusion that in my view, runs contrary to a legal tradition that embodies a fundamental precept of our criminal law and that stretches back, at least, to the origins of our nation,” Breyer wrote.

Sarah Schrup, an attorney for Kahler with Northwestern Supreme Court Practicum at Northwestern University, said the organization was particularly disappointed with the ruling because it was a capital case. Schrup also noted that both the majority and dissenting opinions recognized the long, historical tradition of the insanity defense, and it’s legal application.

“Accordingly, it is difficult to predict the broader implications of the decision,” Schrup said in an email Monday. “Given the court’s reasoning and most states’ recognition that we do not punish those who cannot appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct (whether due to insanity, extreme mental disability or even youth), it may be that we simply continue on as we have, with 48 jurisdictions permitting this defense, and five states rejecting it.”

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt cheered the ruling, but noted in a statement that Kahler can still mount further appeals “through collateral attacks on the conviction or sentence in both state and federal court.”

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