Death Penalty

ABA supports use of traditional insanity defense in death-row inmate’s petition

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In an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, the ABA said it supports Kansas death-row inmate James Kraig Kahler’s petition to reverse the Kansas Supreme Court decision that rejected the traditional insanity defense in his case.

Kahler, who was convicted of killing four family members in 2009, argued in his cert petition that Kansas can’t curtail the insanity defense under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted his case in March.

“The Kansas statute at issue in this case allows a defendant to be convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, even when his mental disorder prevented him from understanding that his actions were wrong,” the ABA said in its amicus brief. “For nearly four decades, the ABA has consistently opposed state statutes that permit this result, given their incompatibility with the Anglo-American legal tradition and with commonly accepted rationales for punishment.”

Kansas is one of only four states in the country that prohibits the insanity defense—a foundational principle in American criminal law that places moral culpability for a crime on understanding the difference between “right and wrong,” according to an ABA press release.

The Kansas Supreme Court had upheld Kahler’s conviction and the state’s use of a mens rea approach, which instead focuses on the intent of the defendant.

The ABA has studied mental health issues in the criminal justice system since 1981, and its House of Delegates most recently made changes to the ABA Criminal Justice Standards on Mental Health at the annual meeting in 2016, the news release said. According to the ABA’s amicus brief, these 96 standards outline the ABA’s recommendations “to define clearly the limits of the state’s criminal powers governing the mentally afflicted who become involved with the criminal law.”

The ABA challenged Kansas’ argument that the mens rea approach can be substituted for the traditional insanity defense, saying in its amicus brief that “a person may intend to perform an act that is criminal (and thus have the requisite mens rea for the crime), yet not understand that the act is wrong because of mental incapacity.”

“To impose criminal punishment for conduct that, by definition, is not morally blameworthy, represents ‘a jarring reversal of [the] hundreds of years of moral and legal history’ … and it ‘inhibits if not prevents the exercise of humane judgment that has distinguished our criminal law heritage,’” the ABA continued in its brief.

Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in Kahler v. Kansas.

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