A few days ago the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Kahler v. Kansas, which has sent shockwaves through the legal community (although it has gone somewhat unnoticed given the current pandemic that’s gripping the entire planet). The defendant, Mr. Kahler, shot and killed four family members and was convicted and sentenced to death. The trial court followed Kansas’s version of the insanity defense – whether the defendant’s mental illness left him unable to understand what he was doing when he committed a crime (in legal terms, his mental illness kept him from forming the requisite intent, e.g. intentionally, knowingly…). Mr. Kahler argued on appeal that Kansas law violated due process and was thus unconstitutional because it absolished the insanity defense.

First a little history on the insanity defense. There is no one instanity defense that applies everywhere. The most common comes from English common law and is called the M’Naghten test (from M’Naghten’s Case). States (and countries) that follow the M’Naghten test decide insanity based on the question of whether a defendant’s mental illness left him unable to distinguish right from wrong. If, due to his mental illness, he did not understand that what he did was wrong, he’s not guilty by reason of insanity. Texas follows test. Other states follow several other tests, such as whether a defendant’s mental illness made him subject to irresistible impulses or otherwise unable to control his actions, or (in a much broader test) whether the defendant’s criminal act stemmed from a mental illness.

Here the Supreme Court declared that due process did not require states to follow any one given test. Just because Kansas did not recognize the right from wrong test did not mean it had abolished the death penalty. 6 Justices came together in the majority (Kagan joined the conservative justices – Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh) in this ruling.

The dissenting opinion argued that the M’Naghten (right/wrong) test had become so fundamental to American law (45 states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia use it) that due process should require that people who may be able to form the requisite intent but don’t understand right from wrong should not be convicted.

This is an interesting case. Personally I do not like the M’Naghten test as it is quite narrow and doesn’t cover many profoundly mentally ill defendants. I wouldn’t argue that M’Naghten should become the only test, as there are broader, more common sense approaches. When I first read about this opinion I was surprised that I agreed with the majority. The more I think about it, however, I do agree with the dissent that people who don’t understand that their actions were wrong shouldn’t be held accountable in the same way as “normal” defendants. We will just have to see how this develops.

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