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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Kansas Death Row Inmate By Limiting Insanity Defense

James Kahler was convicted of murdering four family members in 2009.
James Kahler was convicted of murdering four family members in 2009.

In a ruling that could have implications for criminal cases nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a Kansas death row inmate who argued that the state's laws regarding the insanity defense are unconstitutional.

Kansas and three other states — Utah, Montana and Idaho — have banished the insanity defense as a formal mechanism. Alaska also has severe restrictions on its use.

The facts underlying the case date to 2009, when James Kraig Kahler murdered his estranged wife, their two teenage daughters and his wife's grandmother in Burlingame, about 30 miles south of Topeka.

Kahler’s attorneys said 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. 

They argued that Kansas has effectively abolished the right to use insanity as a defense in criminal cases. That, they said, is unconstitutional because it violated Kahler's right to due process and resulted in excessive punishment.

But in their 6-3 decision, the justices affirmed an earlier decision by the Kansas Supreme Court and upheld Kahler’s conviction.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan argued that Kansas does not bar, but rather “channels,” use of the insanity defense into the trial and sentencing phases. 

In other words, defendants are able to raise the issue of insanity in an attempt to prevent conviction, and then can later request a sentence involving hospitalization instead of prison.

Kagan was joined in the opinion by Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Many states use a two-pronged legal test for the insanity defense known as the “M’Naghten Rule,” which holds that criminal defendants may be innocent if they either did not understand the nature of their actions when they committed the offense or if they didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong.

But according to the Supreme Court's majority opinion, 16 states have refined the test to focus on whether the defendant understands his or her act was illegal, as opposed to morally wrong.

Therefore, Kagan wrote, a ruling in Kahler’s favor “would require striking down not only the five state laws like Kansas's, but 16 others as well.”

“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,” Kagan wrote.

“It is a project ... 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. “

Writing in dissent, Stephen Breyer argued that the Kansas law “requires conviction of a broad swath of defendants who are obviously insane and would be adjudged not guilty under any traditional form of the defense.”

Breyer was joined in his dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

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

Copyright 2020 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.