James K. Kahler v. State of Kansas

140 S.Ct. 1021 (2020)
Download Judgment: English

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The appellant was charged with four counts of first-degree murder for when he drove to his ex-wife’s grandmother’s house and shot his ex-wife, her grandmother, and his two daughters to death. The murders followed the appellant going through a divorce with the now deceased ex-wife and suffering a job loss which left him distraught. There was expert testimony that the appellant was suffering from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder for which he was also prescribed medication for. The appellant was unable to raise a defense of insanity because of KSA 22-3220, legislation enacted in 1995 which in-effect abolished the insanity defense for criminal proceedings in the state of Kansas and replaced it with mens rea component instead. Consequently, the appellant was convicted on all accounts by a jury at the trial court and sentenced to death.

The appellant appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court on the grounds that KSA 22-3220 violated the due process clause in the eighth and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution.  The appeal was denied because of State v. Bethel (2003), a precedential decision which found that KSA 22-3220 did not violate the eight and fourteenth amendments.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that KSA-3220 did not violate the eight and fourteenth amendments and that the due process clause did not require states to adopt an insanity defense. Per Leland v. Oregon, a previous SCOTUS case, the defense argued that a state rule about criminal liability violated only due process only if it “offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” The specific principle they were alleging as to be fundamental was the M’Naghten test whereby a defendant can be acquitted if they are found to be lacking cognitive or moral capacity. Lacking cognitive capacity involves the defendant unable to understand what they are doing during the commission of a crime and lacking the moral capacity involves the defendant not understanding that what they are doing is wrong. KSA 22-3220 in effect adopted the cognitive capacity prong of the M’Naghten Rule and rejected the moral incapacity prong.

The majority held against the assertion that the M’Naghten Rule was to be ranked as fundamental because the common law preceding and following M’Naughten was inconsistent with some states adopting only the moral incapacity defense, the cognitive capacity defense or both. Further, in Clark v Arizona, the SCOTUS held that a state’s failure to adopt the cognitive prong of M’Naughten test did not violate the constitution’s due process clause. Relying on Clark, the majority held that the adoption of a specific definition for mental illness and legal culpability is reserved for the states. Thus, the state of Kansas was well within its rights to enact KSA 22-3220. Lastly, the majority also pointed out that KSA 22-3220 did not in fact abolish the insanity defense in the state of Kansas and instead only modified and that in the state of Kansas and that a defendant can still raise evidence regarding moral capacity during sentencing to which courts can use to adjust sentences accordingly.

The dissent held KSA 22-3220 to violate the right due process and thus be unconstitutional. The dissent reasoned that the M’Naughten Rule did rise to the level of being fundamental evidenced by only a handful of states enacting legislation contrary to it.

“Kansas law provides that “[i]t shall be a defense to a prosecution under any statute that the defendant, as a result of mental disease or defect, lacked the culpable mental state required as an element of the offense charged.” Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5209 (2018 Cum. Supp.).2 Under that statute, a defendant may introduce any evidence of any mental illness to show that he did not have the intent needed to commit the charged crime.” At page 3

“He must show that adopting the moral-incapacity version of the insanity rule is not a choice at all—because, again, that version is “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Leland, 343 U. S., at 798. And he cannot. The historical record is, on any fair reading, complex—even messy. As we will detail, it reveals early versions of not only Kahler’s proposed standard but also Kansas’s alternative.” At page 14

“Formulating an insanity defense also involves choosing among theories of moral and legal culpability, themselves the subject of recurrent controversy. At the juncture between those two spheres of conflict and change, small wonder there has not been the stasis Kahler sees—with one version of the insanity defense entrenched for hundreds of years.” At page 22 and 23

“[I]t would be indefensible to impose upon the States one test rather than another for determining criminal culpability” for the mentally ill, “and thereby to displace a State’s own choice.” At page 9

“The takeaway was “clear”: A State’s “insanity rule[] is substantially open to state choice.” Clark, 548 U. S., at 752. Reiterating Powell’s statement, Clark held that “no particular” insanity test serves as “a baseline for due process.” At page 9

“So constitutionalizing the moral-incapacity standard, as Kahler requests, would require striking down not only the five state laws like Kansas’s (as the dissent at times suggests, see post, at 16), but 16 others as well (as the dissent eventually concedes is at least possible, see post, at 21). And with what justification? The emergence of M’Naghten’s legal variant, far from raising a due process problem, merely confirms what Clark already recognized. Even after its articulation in M’Naghten (much less before), the moral incapacity test has never commanded the day.” At page 22

“At the sentencing phase, a Kansas defendant has wide latitude to raise his mental illness as a reason to judge him not fully culpable and so to lessen his punishment. See §§21–6815(c)(1)(C), 21–6625(a). He may present evidence (of the kind M’Naghten deemed relevant) that his disease made him unable to understand his act’s moral wrongness.” At page 4

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