Can States Eliminate the Insanity Defense?

Photo provided courtesy of

By: Samantha Thompson, Staff Writer

On October 7th, 2019, the first day of the 2019-2020 Supreme Court term, the Court heard the arguments for Kahler v. Kansas, to determine whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense.[1]

The insanity defense is an affirmative defense, meaning if the defendant can prove legal insanity then the defendant is not liable for their actions regardless of whether they were guilty.[2] In 1996, Kansas became one of five states to eliminate the insanity defense after John W. Hinkley was found not guilty by reason of insanity after attempting to shoot President Ronald Reagan.[3]Instead of using the insanity defense, Kansas defendants can argue that they could not have had the mens rea in committing a crime, meaning the required mental state for criminal intent.[4]

The case of Kahler v. Kansas began in 2008, when James Kahler and his wife Karen lived in Texas with their two daughters and son.[5] The family moved from Texas to Missouri where Kahler got a new job as the director of a local utility company.[6] Around the same time, Karen began an affair with a woman.[7] Kahler assented to his wife’s new relationship, but expected it to end after the move to Missouri.[8] When Karen did not end the relationship, Kahler  became jealous and obsessive.[9] This led to poor performance of his job, which he soon lost., and Karen filed for divorce.[10] During the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday, Kahler celebrated the holiday with his parents.[11] Knowing Karen and the children would be celebrating at her grandmother’s house, Kahler drove to Karen’s grandmother’s home.[12] He entered the home, and fatally shot Karen, her grandmother, and their two daughters, leaving only his son to escape.[13]

At trial, Kahler attempted to use the insanity defense by calling on experts to testify that his mental illness had degraded to the point that he could no longer refrain from his actions.[14] Kahler had previously “been diagnosed with mixed obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic, and histrionic personality”.[15] He asked the court to include this in the jury instructions, but the judge refused because the Kansas had eliminated the insanity defense.[16] The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.[17] Kahler, after losing on appeal, petitioned to the Supreme Court.[18]

In his argument to the Court, Kahler states the insanity defense is a part of our nation’s history and tradition, referencing English common law cases to show that “those who are incapable of moral judgement and cannot tell the difference between right and wrong…cannot be held criminally responsible for their actions.”[19]

During the hearing, the Justices questioned the reasoning of both parties.[20] Justice Elena Kagan questioned the potential implications of Kansas’s argument by questioning where the limits of the State’s power reside.[21] For example, Justice Kagan asked whether or not, under this argument, states should be able to eliminate the duress defense.[22] The Justices questioned Kahler’s argument as well, asking exactly what standard they believed the Constitution required.[23] Kahler responded by stating that there should not be one uniform rule, but rather the Constitution required a minimum standard that State’s should then be able to build upon.[24]

Because this issue is new to the Supreme Court, it is difficult to predict the outcome. Those present at the hearings mentioned that the Justices did not seem to clearly support one side or the other, rather they seemed to be trying to fully analyze the constitutional issue at hand.[24] Regardless of the outcome, it is sure to be a crucial precedential decision for many cases to come.




[4] Id.

[5] State v. Kahler, 410 P.3d 105, 113 (Kan. 2018), cert. granted, 139 S. Ct. 1318 (2019).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Kahler, 410 P.3d at 113.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.


[15]  Id.

[16] Kahler, 410 P.3d at 114.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id.


[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.


[25] Id.

Comments are closed.