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Supreme Court: States may determine their own insanity defenses

Traditionally, the insanity defense has been available in two situations:

  • Due to a mental illness or defect, the defendant could not keep his actions within the dictates of the law.
  • Due to a mental illness or defect, the defendant could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.

In Kansas and four other states, however, the insanity defense is only available in the first situation. Under a 1996 law, a person who is unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions can still be found guilty.

A man who was convicted of killing his wife, two of his children and another relative in 2009 recently challenged Kansas's restriction of the insanity defense. He claimed that the traditional version of the insanity defense was so deeply rooted in Anglo-American law that it is required by due process. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled against him, so he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that Kansas is not required to offer the traditional insanity defense but can limit it by statute.

"Under well-settled precedent a state rule about criminal liability -- laying out either the elements of, or the defenses to a crime -- violates due process only if it 'offends some principal of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people, as to be ranked as fundamental'" wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the majority.

What was the man's defense?

The Kansas man argued that he had been dealt two blows to his mental stability around the time of the homicides. First, his wife had left him and taken the children. Second, he lost his job and had to move in with his parents. He essentially argued that the stress from those events affected him so severely that he had less than a complete understanding of the wrongfulness of his actions.

Evolving insanity defense calls for state rules

The Supreme Court examined the history of the insanity defense and noted that its construction and understanding has evolved over time. "No insanity rule in this country's heritage or history was ever so settled as to tie a state's hands centuries later," reads the opinion.

The high court noted that Kansas does take mental illness into account in criminal proceedings. It simply does not allow mental illness to constitute a complete defense when the allegation is that the defendant didn't recognize that their actions were morally wrong.

The court considered it sufficient to take the defendant's mental illness into account at trial and sentencing, even though in this case the defendant was sentenced to death. The man may still appeal his conviction and sentence on other grounds.

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