Will SCOTUS help do away with the insanity defense?

Violent criminals pleading not guilty by reason of insanity may be a thing of the past in more states around the country in the near future. Five states, including Kansas, have already passed laws largely eliminating that defense tactic, but one defendant has managed to get his case on the Supreme Court’s docket, seeking to overturn those laws. The fact that they agreed to hear the suit at all means this could still go in the other direction, but at least there will be a definitive answer. If Kraig Kahler prevails, he may get a fresh hearing after murdering not only his wife but two of his children and his mother-in-law. (The Hill)

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a case challenging a law in Kansas and four other states that abolishes a criminal defendant’s ability to plead insanity.

At the center of the dispute is a Kansas man named Kraig Kahler, who argues his depression was so severe and his mental state was so disturbed when he killed his estranged wife, two of his three kids and his mother-in-law in 2009 that he was unable to control his actions.

If he had committed his crimes in any of the 46 states and D.C. that recognize an insanity defense, Kahler’s attorneys argue he would have been able to introduce evidence to show that his mental state caused him to commit the murders.

I’ve never been able to go the full 100% in either direction on this question. My basic take has always been that anyone willing to go on a spree of murder, rape or other violent crimes has to be pretty much crazy by definition, right? Does anyone honestly think that Charles Manson is sane? But just because you’re crazy, that doesn’t mean that you’re not accountable for your actions. And to at least some extent, it seems like even the most violent criminals are aware of what they’re doing and even realize on some level that it’s wrong. From that perspective, insanity (and most especially “temporary insanity”) shouldn’t be a defense.

What holds me back from going whole hog on laws completely eliminating this sort of defense is the fact that there are, sadly, a certain number of patients who are so far gone from mental illness that they are essentially disconnected from the world. And if they truly don’t comprehend the world around them in the same way most (allegedly) sane people do, it’s hard to hold them accountable.

But if someone is really that far gone, they generally won’t have the capacity to plan and carry out such crimes, right? This is where some element of doubt creeps in for me and I become nervous about the court jumping into this mess. If you to New York City on any given day, particularly in the summer, you’ll see some people on the sidewalk or in the parks roaming around and shouting at… nothing. They have conversations with ghosts, and some of them seem very angry. If one of them winds up killing somebody, I’d probably have to agree to some sort of insanity defense, provided they were locked up in an institution for the rest of their lives so they can’t harm anyone else.

I think the best we’ll be able to do is leave this up to the states to decide for themselves. And hopefully, the Supreme Court will see it the same way.