Consensus or Confusion: Determining the Constitutionality of the Insanity Defense

By Rafael Santa Maria (PO ’20)

A grisly capital murder case might determine the constitutionality of the insanity defense. In 2009, James Kraig Kahler shot and killed his wife, his mother-in-law, and his own two daughters in Burlingame, Kansas. After being found guilty and facing a capital murder conviction, Kahler appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn his death sentence. In doing so, the defense claimed that Kahler’s severe depression, seemingly caused by his wife’s extramarital affair and estrangement from his family, impaired Kahler’s judgment and caused him to lose control of his actions. Nevertheless, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s capital conviction. Kahler then petitioned for a writ of certiorari, bringing the future of the insanity defense to the national stage.

Although the insanity plea is very seldom used in US criminal cases, the pending Kahler v. Kansas case nonetheless presents interesting constitutional questions. In pleading for Kahler’s innocence, the Kahler defense argued that the Kansas courts violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his Eighth Amendment right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. They argued that, since Kansas does not recognize severe mental illness as a defense to criminal action, Kahler was not allowed to provide evidence that his mental illness caused him to lose control and thus was not given proper due process. Furthermore, the defense claimed that punishing Kahler would be cruel and unusual since his mental illness, as opposed to Kahler himself, bore the moral culpability of the crime.

By framing the issue of the insanity defense in these terms, Kahler v. Kansas may provide a definitive answer to whether “the Constitution mandates an insanity defense,” a question that the Supreme Court avoided in Clark v. Arizona, a previous case involving a similar issue. In said case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Arizona Court of Appeals decision to convict Eric Michael Clark, a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, since Clark could reasonably distinguish between morally right or wrong actions. Still, the Supreme Court remained ambiguous regarding the constitutionality of the insanity defense and instead left the issue largely up to the state courts. Justice Souter’s decision reflected this equivocality, stating: “We have never held that the Constitution mandates an insanity defense, nor have we held that the Constitution does not so require.”

Without a definitive stance on the insanity defense from the Supreme Court, state high courts differ significantly on whether or not the insanity defense is constitutionally required. In Kahler’s petition to the Supreme Court, the petitioners highlight these wide disagreements and use them to argue for a writ of certiorari. Notably, the petition points out that while Nevada, California, Louisiana, Washington, Mississippi, Colorado and Minnesota condemn criminal convictions of defendants who are mentally unable to understand or control their actions, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah explicitly deny that due process requires states to recognize an insanity defense. Moreover, the petitioners stress that these states overwhelmingly tend to reaffirm their previous rulings, further entrenching insanity defense inconsistencies.

Of course, the Kahler petition unabashedly advocates for the Supreme Court to rule that the insanity defense is a constitutionally mandated aspect of the criminal legal system. Throughout the petition brief, the petitioners decry the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision and Kansas policy on the insanity defense in general, presenting the need for a constitutionally-mandated insanity defense as the culmination of hundreds of years of English common law principles and precedents.

Regardless of the petitioners’ bias, the brief draws attention to how the constant prevalence of mental illness ensures that there will always be at least some cases in which the culpability of the defendant cannot easily be determined. Since this issue will inevitably persist, the issue of consensus on the insanity defense will continue to boil to the surface. Therefore, even if it is not addressed and resolved in Kahler v. Kansas, the issue will likely turn up again in the future.

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