50+ Definitions of Insanity: Supreme Court says the Definition is up to the State

With the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, many of you are probably joking about how staying indoors is driving you insane.  But what exactly is insanity?  Generally, when we discuss someone who is “insane,” we think of an individual who has a medical mental health issue.  However, the medical community no longer uses the term insane but instead uses more specific terms related to various mental health-related illnesses.  Insanity, at this point, is a purely legal term – which still doesn’t tell us much.

That’s because insanity doesn’t have a singular definition.  Instead, different states define insanity in different ways.  This week, Kansas’ definition withstood a major assault, as the Supreme Court upheld their limited definition of insanity in Justice Elena Kagan’s March 23, 2020 decision in Kahler v. Kansas No. 18-6135, but not without some important caveats that states should consider.

Justice Kagan, writing for a 6-3 majority, first explained the four basic types of recognized insanity defenses.  Insanity, as a general rule, is a defense to a crime.  Thus, if a jury finds a defendant insane at the time the crime is committed, then that defendant is not guilty of the crime.  In American jurisprudence, a particular state’s insanity defense amounted to one or more of the following:

  • Cognitive incapacity – an individual’s mental illness left him or her unable to understand what he or she was doing.
  • Moral incapacity – an individual’s mental illness left him or her unable to understand what he or she was doing was wrong.[1]
  • Volitional incapacity – an individual’s mental illness left him or her unable to control his or her actions or impulses.
  • Product of Mental Illness – a broader definition wherein a criminal act stemmed from an individual’s mental illness.

After reviewing these four general definitions of insanity, Justice Kagan noted that no one definition was prevalent in all 50 states and that various states adopted various versions of the above definitions.  She then turned to an overview of Kansas’ definition of insanity as a defense.

Kansas had adopted a pure cognitive incapacity test during the guilt phase of a trial.  Thus, an individual could only be found not guilty by reason of insanity if he or she was unable to understand what he or she was doing.  However, in an interesting twist, a guilty individual could subsequently present evidence at the sentencing of the other three types of insanity and argue for a reduced sentence or that he or she should be committed to a mental institution.

The facts of the case were as follows.  In 2009, Karen Kahler filed for divorce from her husband, James.  Over Thanksgiving weekend, James Kahler drove to where Karen and the children were staying and shot and killed Karen Kahler, her grandmother, and his two teenage daughters.  He was subsequently charged with capital murder.  Kahler was convicted and sentenced to death but challenged Kansas’ insanity defense.  He argued that due process required Kansas to adopt not only a cognitive incapacity test but also a moral incapacity test.  Justice Kagan disagreed and held that the standard to recognize a right to a specific insanity defense under due process required the defendant to prove that Kansas’ law “offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.”  Put simply, Kahler needed to prove that the moral incapacity insanity defense was a fundamental right of an accused person.  The Court found this was not fundamental at all.  In support of its decision, the Supreme Court relied on past precedent and noted that although many states had similar insanity defenses, they all differed in various ways.  The Court thus held that the exact delineation of an insanity defense falls to the state to determine, and not the Supreme Court.

Despite reaching this conclusion, Justice Kagan’s decision did have one major caveat.  While holding that “due process imposes no single canonical formulation of legal insanity,” Justice Kagan recognized that “for hundreds of years jurists and judges have recognized insanity (however defined) as relieving responsibility for a crime.”  Thus, Justice Kagan’s opinion can be interpreted to hold that although the exact definition of insanity is up for discussion, the availability of an insanity defense is not; states cannot choose to abandon an insanity defense altogether.

What does this mean for New Jersey?  New Jersey’s insanity statute can be found in N.J.S.A. 2C:4-1.  It says that a person is not responsible for his or her actions if (a) he did not know what he was doing, or (b) if he did not know what he was doing was wrong. New Jersey has thus adopted both a cognitive and moral incapacity standard for insanity.  While the Court’s decision allows New Jersey to limit its insanity defense to just one of these, it seems unlikely New Jersey will look to do so in the near future.

It is important to remember that one of the most fundamental rights of anyone charged with a crime is to have a competent attorney represent you.  As a former Assistant Prosecutor, Sean Gaynor has a unique insight into a Prosecutor’s case that can help you to put forward a full and complete defense.  If you or someone you know is charged with a criminal offense, we encourage you to reach out to Daly & Associates at (973) 292-9222 to schedule a consultation now.  Even during the COVID-19 Pandemic, our attorneys are working remotely to ensure that you are properly represented.

[1] Some states have adapted this to a legal incapacity, wherein a person did not know what he or she was doing was illegal.

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