Kahler v. Kansas

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation206 L.Ed.2d 312,140 S.Ct. 1021
Docket NumberNo. 18-6135,18-6135
Parties James K. KAHLER, Petitioner v. KANSAS
Decision Date23 March 2020

140 S.Ct. 1021
206 L.Ed.2d 312

James K. KAHLER, Petitioner

No. 18-6135

Supreme Court of the United States.

Argued October 7, 2019
Decided March 23, 2020

Derek Schmidt, Attorney General of Kansas, Jeffrey A. Chanay, Chief Deputy Attorney, General, Toby Crouse, Solicitor General of Kansas, Kristafer Ailslieger, Brant M. Laue, Deputy Solicitors General, Dwight R. Carswell, Natalie Chalmers, Rachel L. Pickering, Assistant Solicitors General, Topeka, KS, for Respondent.

Jeffrey T. Green, Tobias S. Loss-Eaton, Lucas Croslow, Chike B. Croslin, Gabriel Schonfeld, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, DC, Naomi Igra, Sidley Austin LLP, San Francisco, CA, Sarah O'Rourke Schrup, Northwestern Supreme, Court Practicum, Chicago, IL, Meryl Carver-Allmond, Clayton J. Perkins, Capital Appellate, Defender Office, for Petitioner.

Justice KAGAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

140 S.Ct. 1024

This case is about Kansas's treatment of a criminal defendant's insanity claim. In Kansas, a defendant can invoke mental illness to show that he lacked the requisite mens rea (intent) for a crime. He can also raise mental illness after conviction to justify either a reduced term of imprisonment or commitment to a mental health facility. But Kansas, unlike many States, will not wholly exonerate a defendant on the ground that his illness prevented him from recognizing his criminal act as morally wrong. The issue here is whether the Constitution's Due Process Clause forces Kansas to do so—otherwise said, whether that Clause compels the acquittal of any defendant who, because of mental illness, could not tell right from wrong when committing

140 S.Ct. 1025

his crime. We hold that the Clause imposes no such requirement.



In Clark v. Arizona , 548 U.S. 735, 749, 126 S.Ct. 2709, 165 L.Ed.2d 842 (2006), this Court catalogued state insanity defenses, counting four "strains variously combined to yield a diversity of American standards" for when to absolve mentally ill defendants of criminal culpability. The first strain asks about a defendant's "cognitive capacity"—whether a mental illness left him "unable to understand what he [was] doing" when he committed a crime. Id. , at 747, 749, 126 S.Ct. 2709. The second examines his "moral capacity"—whether his illness rendered him "unable to understand that his action [was] wrong." Ibid. Those two inquiries, Clark explained, appeared as alternative pathways to acquittal in the landmark English ruling M'Naghten's Case , 10 Cl. & Fin. 200, 8 Eng. Rep. 718 (H. L. 1843), as well as in many follow-on American decisions and statutes: If the defendant lacks either cognitive or moral capacity, he is not criminally responsible for his behavior. Yet a third "building block[ ]" of state insanity tests, gaining popularity from the mid-19th century on, focuses on "volitional incapacity"—whether a defendant's mental illness made him subject to "irresistible[ ] impulse[s]" or otherwise unable to "control[ ] his actions." Clark , 548 U.S. at 749, 750, n. 11, 126 S.Ct. 2709 ; see, e.g. , Parsons v. State , 81 Ala. 577, 597, 2 So. 854, 866–867 (1887). And bringing up the rear, in Clark 's narration, the "product-of-mental-illness test" broadly considers whether the defendant's criminal act stemmed from a mental disease. 548 U.S. at 749–750, 126 S.Ct. 2709.

As Clark explained, even that taxonomy fails to capture the field's complexity. See id. , at 750, n. 11, 126 S.Ct. 2709. Most notable here, M'Naghten 's "moral capacity" prong later produced a spinoff, adopted in many States, that does not refer to morality at all. Instead of examining whether a mentally ill defendant could grasp that his act was immoral , some jurisdictions took to asking whether the defendant could understand that his act was illegal . Compare, e.g. , People v. Schmidt , 216 N.Y. 324, 333–334, 110 N.E. 945, 947 (1915) (Cardozo, J.) (asking about moral right and wrong), with, e.g. , State v. Hamann , 285 N.W.2d 180, 183 (Iowa 1979) (substituting ideas of legal right and wrong). That change in legal standard matters when a mentally ill defendant knew that his act violated the law yet believed it morally justified. See, e.g. , Schmidt , 216 N.Y. at 339, 110 N.E. at 949 ; People v. Serravo , 823 P.2d 128, 135 (Colo. 1992).1

Kansas law provides that "[i]t shall be a defense to a prosecution under any statute that the defendant, as a result of mental disease or defect, lacked the culpable mental state required as an element of the offense charged." Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21–5209 (2018 Cum. Supp.).2 Under that statute, a defendant may introduce any evidence of any mental illness to show that he did not have the intent needed to commit the charged crime. Suppose, for example, that the defendant shot someone dead

140 S.Ct. 1026

and goes on trial for murder. He may then offer psychiatric testimony that he did not understand the function of a gun or the consequences of its use—more generally stated, "the nature and quality" of his actions. M'Naghten , 10 Cl. & Fin., at 210, 8 Eng. Rep., at 722. And a jury crediting that testimony must acquit him. As everyone here agrees, Kansas law thus uses M'Naghten 's "cognitive capacity" prong—the inquiry into whether a mentally ill defendant could comprehend what he was doing when he committed a crime. See Brief for Petitioner 41; Brief for Respondent 31; Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 18. If the defendant had no such capacity, he could not form the requisite intent—and thus is not criminally responsible.

At the same time, the Kansas statute provides that "[m]ental disease or defect is not otherwise a defense." § 21–5209. In other words, Kansas does not recognize any additional way that mental illness can produce an acquittal.3 Most important for this case, a defendant's moral incapacity cannot exonerate him, as it would if Kansas had adopted both original prongs of M'Naghten . Assume, for example, that a defendant killed someone because of an "insane delusion that God ha[d] ordained the sacrifice." Schmidt , 216 N.Y. at 339, 110 N.E. at 949. The defendant knew what he was doing (killing another person), but he could not tell moral right from wrong; indeed, he thought the murder morally justified. In many States, that fact would preclude a criminal conviction, although it would almost always lead to commitment in a mental health facility. In Kansas, by contrast, evidence of a mentally ill defendant's moral incapacity—or indeed, of anything except his cognitive inability to form the needed mens rea —can play no role in determining guilt.

That partly closed-door policy changes once a verdict is in. At the sentencing phase, a Kansas defendant has wide latitude to raise his mental illness as a reason to judge him not fully culpable and so to lessen his punishment. See §§ 21–6815(c)(1)(C), 21–6625(a). He may present evidence (of the kind M'Naghten deemed relevant) that his disease made him unable to understand his act's moral wrongness—as in the example just given of religious delusion. See § 21–6625(a). Or he may try to show (in line with M'Naghten 's spinoff) that the illness prevented him from "appreciat[ing] the [conduct's] criminality." § 21–6625(a)(6). Or again, he may offer testimony (here invoking volitional incapacity) that he simply could not "conform [his] conduct" to legal restraints. Ibid. Kansas sentencing law thus provides for an individualized determination of how mental illness, in any or all of its aspects, affects culpability. And the same kind of evidence can persuade a court to place a defendant who needs psychiatric care in a mental health facility rather than a prison. See § 22–3430. In that way, a defendant in Kansas lacking, say, moral capacity may wind up in the same kind of institution as a like defendant in a State that would bar his conviction.


This case arises from a terrible crime. In early 2009, Karen Kahler filed for divorce from James Kahler and moved out of their home with their two teenage daughters and 9-year-old son. Over the following months, James Kahler became more and

140 S.Ct. 1027

more distraught. On Thanksgiving weekend, he drove to the home of Karen's grandmother, where he knew his family was staying. Kahler entered through the back door and saw Karen and his son. He shot Karen twice, while allowing his son to flee the house. He then moved through the residence, shooting Karen's grandmother and each of his daughters in turn. All four of his victims died. Kahler surrendered to the police the next day and was charged with capital murder.

Before trial, Kahler filed a motion arguing that Kansas's treatment of insanity claims violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Kansas, he asserted, had "unconstitutionally abolished the insanity defense" by allowing the conviction of a mentally ill person "who cannot tell the difference between right and wrong." App. 11–12. The trial court denied the motion, leaving Kahler to attempt to show through psychiatric and other testimony that severe depression had prevented him from forming the intent to kill. See id. , at 16; § 21–5209. The jury convicted Kahler of capital murder. At the penalty phase, the court permitted Kahler to offer additional evidence of his mental illness and to argue in whatever way he liked that it...

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