NEWS (3/23/20): U.S. Supreme Court — The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a Kansas death-row prisoner who had argued his conviction violated due process because he had not been permitted to present an insanity defense. In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court upheld the conviction of James Kahler for murdering his estranged wife, two teenage daughters, and a fourth family member in 2009, while in a state of severe depression from the breakdown of his marriage.

The Court held that where a state permits a defendant to present a defense that mental illness prevented him from forming the requisite criminal intent, it is not also required to allow a separate “moral incapacity” insanity defense. The 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, the Court wrote, does not “compel[ ] the acquittal of any defendant who, because of mental illness, could not tell right from wrong when committing his crime.”

In dissent, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, said that for more than 700 years, Anglo-American law has permitted an insanity defense based upon a defendant’s incapacity to distinguish right from wrong. “Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense,” the dissent wrote. “[I]t has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries.”