Kansas quadruple killer's SCOTUS appeal could change insanity defenses nationwide

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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) --- A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the case of a Kansas man convicted of killing four family members ten years ago in Osage County could change the way insanity defenses work across the country.

On Monday, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced the nation’s highest court would hear the appeal of James Kraig Kahler, who was sentenced to death for the November 2009 killings of his estranged wife, two daughters, and wife's grandmother a day after Thanksgiving.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Writ of Certiorari filed on behalf of Kahler by the state’s Capital Appellate Defender’s office, Sidley Austin LLP, and the Northwestern Supreme Court Practicum. The case is scheduled to be heard in the October 2019 session.

The Justices called Kahler’s case an “ideal vehicle” to determine whether the state’s restrictions on insanity pleas violate his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. According to Kansas statute, mental disease or defect is not a defense if the defendant had the intention of committing the offense “regardless of why he thought he was doing it or whether he knew it was right or wrong.” The state Supreme Court upheld the measure in 2003 following the Michael Bethel’s appeal of his murder conviction.

“Kansas still allows that information to be put on, but through a different statute regarding information about mental disease or defect,” said Schmidt.

In its decision to hear Kahler’s appeal, federal Justices pointed out seven states’ high courts have recognized a Constitutional right to an insanity defense, defying their respective state legislatures’ efforts to place restrictions on it or get rid of it altogether. They specifically pointed to the Nevada Supreme Court’s determination the “legal insanity is a well-established and fundamental principle of the law of the United States… (and) …therefore protected by the Due Process Clauses of both the United States and Nevada Constitutions.”

The writ issued by the Court also pointed to precedent by the Washington Supreme Court citing the long history of insanity defenses “from the earliest period of the common law.” In Washington v. Strasburg the court ruled it was “too plain for argument” that “prior to and at the time of the adoption of our Constitution” a defendant was entitled to such a defense.

“We have a very limited use of evidence regarding a mental disease or defect that can be used in criminal cases in Kansas,” said John Francis, a law professor at Washburn University.

The High Court said its counterparts in the Kansas Supreme Court were wrong when they decided an insanity defense was not a fundamental tenet of American jurisprudence, reaching back to scholarly thought from Hebrew and Greek thinkers from the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., respectively. They noted by the 12th century such a defense “had taken root within the English common law tradition, and by the sixteenth century, insanity was a “well recognized defense.”

According to the Court’s writ, the Bethel decision found the Kansas state legislature did not eliminate the insanity defense altogether, however it did “redefine” it. Kansas law as it stands allows defendants claiming insanity to be convicted “if the defendant was able to form the intent required to commit the offense” – even if they did not know whether doing it was right or wrong. The statement called irrelevant the fact malice is not an essential part of a murder decision in Kansas, only the intent to kill a human being.

AN IDEAL VEHICLE

In contrast, four states besides Kansas – Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Utah – have all placed restrictions on the M’Naghten (or similar) rule that typically is used in insanity defenses. This discrepancy has prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to call Kahler’s appeal “an ideal vehicle to decide the issue.”

It added that the Kahler case “cleanly" offers the Justices a chance to settle the issue.

“(I)n forty-six other states, Mr. Kahler could have been found not responsible as result of his mental state,” the Justices said. “Not in Kansas.”

In Idaho, one of the state’s that has restricted its insanity defense, a three-Justice majority ruled Due Process does not mandate an insanity defense either at the state or federal level. The Justices found the “wide disparity” in decisions by state legislatures and courts “suggests” it is not Constitutionally-required.

The U.S. Supreme Court noted other state high courts have issued similar decisions. Additionally, both sides of the constitutionality split are filled with precedents affirming their positions.

“We think that the Kansas law has a solid constitutional basis,” said Schmidt.

VITALLY IMPORTANT

“Whether the Constitution permits states to criminally punish (and potentially execute) individuals who could not control their actions or understand they were wrong has profound legal, moral, and practical implications for our criminal justice system.”
- U.S. Supreme Court Review of Petition for Writ of Certiorari for Kahler v. Kansas

In declaring the questions posed by the Kahler case “a vitally important and recurring issue,” the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the legitimacy of our criminal law rests in part on whether it “reflects the moral judgment of the community.”

They cite precedent from Tison v Arizona that argues the “heart of the retribution rationale” relates directly to personal culpability of the offender. They declare this “crucial link” is broken in cases involving the severely mentally ill who cannot control or comprehend the nature of their actions.

Beyond that, a guilty verdict, as opposed to an insanity verdict, could in turn prevent a defendant from receiving necessary medical treatment because “prisons are notoriously ill-suited to provide adequate mental health treatment.”

SENTENCED TO DEATH

Kahler was sentenced to death for the November 2009 killings of his estranged wife, two daughters, and wife's grandmother a day after Thanksgiving.

In February of last year, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld Kahler's conviction. The state Justices ruled that, while prosecutors did make errors in the course of the trial, those mistakes would not have affected the verdicts nor his sentence. In addition, they concluded his crimes met the standard of "heinous, atrocious, or cruel" that justifies the death penalty.

13 NEWS' Shawn Wheat and Steve Fry contributed to this article