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ABA files amicus brief seeking to protect insanity defense

The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief on June 7 asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a Kansas court decision rejecting the traditional insanity defense in a capital murder case.

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court

Kansas is one of only four states nationwide that do not allow the insanity defense, which the ABA brief describes as a foundational principle of American criminal law. In this case, defendant James K. Kahler is asking the court to rule the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments do not permit states to abolish the insanity defense.

In early 2018, the Kansas Supreme Court rejected Kahler’s petition, upholding the state’s use of a mens rea approach, which focuses solely on intent of the defendant rather than the traditional insanity defense, which places moral culpability for a crime on understanding the difference between “right and wrong.”

In its brief, the ABA did not emphasize the constitutional issues being addressed by the parties, but noted it wanted to share with the justices “the insight and perspective the ABA has developed since 1981 through intensive study of mental health issues in the criminal justice system.” The ABA House of Delegates most recently made policy changes to the ABA Criminal Justice Mental Health Standards at its Annual Meeting in 2016

Based on its long involvement in the issue, the ABA challenges Kansas’ argument that the mens rea approach is an acceptable substitute for the traditional “insanity defense that takes account of the moral blameworthiness of the defendant’s conduct.”

“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 some mental incapacity,” the ABA brief said. “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 case will be heard during the court’s next term, which begins in October.

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