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U.S. Supreme Court Mulls Kansas Inmate's Appeal Regarding Insanity Defense

The U.S. Supreme Court has asked for additional documents in the case of a Kansas man who killed four members of his family.
Claire Anderson
The U.S. Supreme Court has asked for additional documents in the case of a Kansas man who killed four members of his family.

An appeal filed by a Kansas man on death row has caught the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court and could change how Kansas and other states prosecute people who commit crimes while mentally ill.

Nobody disputes that James Kahler murdered four family members in 2009. But Kahler’s attorneys argued at trial and in subsequent appeals that he had spiraled into a mental health crisis in the months preceding the murders and was psychotic during the attack. The murders took place in Burlingame, about 30 miles south of Topeka.

The Kansas Supreme Court upheld Kahler's conviction. In September, his attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing that Kansas has effectively abolished the right to use insanity as a defense in criminal cases. That, they say, is unconstitutional because it violated Kahler's right to due process and resulted in excessive punishment.

Three other states — Utah, Montana and Idaho — have also banished the insanity defense.

From a statistical perspective, the petition faces long odds: Only about 80 out of 7,000 or more such petitions filed annually with the Supreme Court are granted.

But last week the court requested more documents from the trial and subsequent appeals, which experts say may be a sign the court is ready to take on the case.

All states require that defendants know what they were doing when they committed an offense. But most states also require defendants to understand that what they did was wrong, said Elizabeth Cateforis, a University of Kansas law professor who specializes in capital punishment and criminal procedure.

If a defendant doesn't meet both conditions, he or she can invoke the insanity defense, which, if accepted, typically leads to mental health treatment instead of a prison sentence.

In Kahler's case, a Life Alert recording device worn by one of the victims captured sound during the attack. At one point Kahler can be heard proclaiming, “Oh s**t! I am going to kill her… G*****n it!,” according to court records.

In a brief opposing Kahler’s Supreme Court petition, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt wrote that the state hasn’t abolished but rather “redefined” the insanity defense.

He also argued that the audio recording proves Kahler “knew at the time that what he was doing was both momentous and wrong.”

Such a claim “rests on a thin reed,” Kahler’s attorneys replied in their brief. “A psychotic person’s use of profanity hardly suggests he knows right from wrong and has chosen freely to do wrong.” 

“For centuries, the insanity defense has protected those who cannot choose between doing good and doing evil,” they wrote. “Either because they cannot tell the difference or because they cannot control their conduct.”

It’s unclear when the Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case. But if it does, Cateforis thinks the justices might be more interested in the narrower angle of capital punishment than the broader question of the insanity defense.

The court  in recent years has ruled that certain categories of defendants — such as juveniles or people with intellectual disabilities — cannot be sentenced to death.

It’s possible, Cateforis said, that the Supreme Court intends to extend the same protection to people “suffering from such an extreme mental illness that (they) can’t form evil intent.” 

Or, she said, the court could choose to say that all defendants have a fundamental right to an insanity defense.

Another possibility, she said, is that the the court would rule against Kahler. Should that happen, Cateforis expects other states to mirror Kansas and adopt more restrictive interpretations of the insanity defense.

Chris Haxel is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email him at chaxel@kcur.org, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaxel.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3

Chris comes to KCUR as part of Guns & America, a reporting collaboration between 10 public media stations that is focused on the role of guns in American life. Hailing from Springfield, Illinois, Chris has lived in seven states and four counties. He previously served in the Army, and reported for newspapers in Kansas and Michigan. Chris lives in downtown Kansas City. He roots for St. Louis sports teams, which means he no longer cares about the NFL.