Supreme Court to consider state laws abolishing the insanity defense

Supreme Court to consider state laws abolishing the insanity defense
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a case challenging a law in Kansas and four other states that abolishes a criminal defendant’s ability to plead insanity.

At the center of the dispute is a Kansas man named Kraig Kahler, who argues his depression was so severe and his mental state was so disturbed when he killed his estranged wife, two of his three kids and his mother-in-law in 2009 that he was unable to control his actions.

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If he had committed his crimes in any of the 46 states or the District of Columbia that recognize an insanity defense, Kahler’s attorneys argue he would have been able to introduce evidence to show that his mental state caused him to commit the murders.

But under Kansas law, a defendant can only show evidence of a mental illness to prove he or she lacked the required intent to commit murder, regardless of whether the mental illness kept them from knowing their actions were wrong.

Kahler argued that under the state's law, even someone who knowingly commits murder because they believe the devil told them to could be found guilty. Only in a rare case, he said in court briefs, would a legally insane person actually lack the requisite intent due to a mental defect.

Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Utah have the same law as Kansas, which Kahler argues is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s right to due process.

Kansas, however, claims that states have broad discretion when determining how they define crimes, admit evidence and create affirmative defenses.

The Supreme Court will consider the case in its next term, which begins in October.