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Reject efforts to abolish insanity defense, ABA urges High Court

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

Kansas is one of only four states nationwide that do not allow the insanity defense that has been a foundational principle in American criminal law. In this case, defendant James K. Kahler is asking the court to rule that the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth and 14th 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 that 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 decades-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 amicus brief in Kahler v Kansas is available here. While the case has been accepted for the term that begins in October, arguments have yet to be scheduled.

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