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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

States Can Abolish The Insanity Defense

     On March 23, 2020, the United States Supreme Court, in Kahler v. Kansas, ruled that it is not unconstitutional for a state to abolish its insanity defense. The insanity defense allows a criminal defendant to be found not guilty due to a mental illness that deprived the offender of knowing right from wrong. In other words, the defendant was too mentally impaired to form criminal intent. Instead of being guilty of the crime, the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity. These defendants, instead of serving a sentence in prison, are committed to a mental hospital where they will remain until doctors determine they are sane enough to return to society. Because juries are skeptical of the insanity defense, it is successful in only one percent of insanity defense cases.

     In 1995, the state of Kansas abolished the insanity defense. (Four other states have since abolished it.)

     In November 2009, in a Kansas killing rampage, James Kahler murdered his two daughters, his estranged wife, and his wife's mother. His attorneys claimed that he was insane, but because the state had made the insanity defense unavailable, Kahler was convicted of four-counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In 2011, Kahler's attorneys challenged the constitutionality of the elimination of the insanity defense. The case worked its way up to  the United States Supreme Court which ruled 6 to 3 in favor of the state. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion.

     While Kahler v. Kansas allows states to abolish the not guilty by reason of insanity defense, defendants can present evidence of mental illness to establish a lack of criminal intent to reduce say, first-degree murder to a lesser homicide offense. Moreover, it can be used post-conviction at a sentence hearing as a mitigating factor.

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