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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Kansas Death Row Inmate's Appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case sometime after October.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case sometime after October.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear the appeal of a Kansas death row inmate who claims the state unconstitutionally abolished his right to use insanity as a defense for his crimes.

Nobody disputes that James Kahler murdered four family members in 2009. But Kahler's attorneys argued at trial and in subsequent appeals that he had spiraled into a mental health crisis in the months preceding the murders and was psychotic during the attack. The murders took place in Burlingame, about 30 miles south of Topeka.

The Kansas Supreme Court upheld Kahler's conviction. In September, his attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing that Kansas has effectively abolished the right to use insanity as a defense in criminal cases. That, they say, is unconstitutional because it violated Kahler's right to due process and resulted in excessive punishment.

Three other states — Utah, Montana and Idaho —  also have banished the insanity defense. The states could be forced to change their laws if the Supreme Court rules in Kahler's favor.

All states require, as a prerequisite for conviction, that defendants knew what they were doing when they committed an offense. But most states also require defendants to understand that what they did was wrong. If defendants don't meet both conditions, they can invoke the insanity defense, which, if accepted, typically leads to mental health treatment instead of a prison sentence.

In a brief opposing Kahler's petition, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt wrote that the state hasn't abolished but rather "redefined" the insanity defense.

The Supreme Court will likely hear the case sometime after its next term begins in October.

Chris Haxel is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email him at chaxel@kcur.org, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaxel.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3