The U.S. Supreme Court, on Monday, March 23rd, 2020, ruled that states have the authority to eliminate the insanity defense. The justices, in their 6-3 ruling, found that a 1995 Kansas law, which eliminated the insanity defense, did not violate the U.S. Constitution. The ruling affirmed a 2018 Kansas Supreme Court decision and upheld the 2011 conviction and death sentence of James Kraig Kahler. Kahler, in 2009, shot his estranged wife, two daughters, and his wife’s grandmother with a high-powered rifle the weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday. He had lost his job and was in the middle of a divorce prior to the shooting. Kahler’s defense wanted to argue that he was not criminally responsible for the murders because he suffered from major depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, and the illnesses made him lose control and kept him from thinking rationally. However, the 1995 legislation prevented Kahler from raising that argument. In 2018, Kahler’s defense further argued that the abolishment of the insanity defense was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated a criminal defendants Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. According to Reuters, the 1995 legislation, which adopted a mens rea approach to insanity, does “allow defendants to argue that, due to mental defect, they did not intend to commit the crime.” This point is further highlighted by Justice Elena Kagan, who authored the majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Kagan wrote that “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.” The dissenting opinion was written by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote that “Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense. Rather, it 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.” Today, Kansas is one of a handful of states that have eliminated the insanity defense in its traditional form. Commentators now question whether those states that currently allow the defense and rely on the use of various legal tests to determine insanity will follow suit.
Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.
The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.
- Writing: Do your beliefs align more with the majority opinion or dissenting opinion in the ruling?
- Debate: The elimination of the insanity defense is unconstitutional because it limits the rights of criminal defendants.
- Poll: Do you believe that states should have the authority to eliminate the insanity defense?
- Short Answer: What type of approach did the 1995 Kansas legislation adopt?
Credit line: ©iStockphoto.com/876701606