The Insanity Defense: A Constitutional Right?

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Written By admin at Wednesday, July 18th, 2012


In four states, the argument that you were legally insane when you committed a crime — and, thus, aren’t responsible for your actions — is a nonstarter. The insanity defense isn’t allowed in Kansas, Montana, Idaho or Utah.

A group of law professors is urging the Supreme Court to take a case that asks whether such a defense must be available to criminal defendants under the U.S. Constitution. (The answer is yes, they argue.)

In a court brief, the professors wrote,

Blame and punishment by the state are fundamentally unfair and thus a violation of Due Process if an offender was not responsible for his crime. The affirmative defense of legal insanity applies this fundamental principle by excusing those mentally disordered offenders whose disorder deprived them of rational understanding of their conduct at the time of the crime.

The brief is signed by professors Stephen J. Morse of University of Pennsylvania and Richard J. Bonnie of University of Virginia, both experts in law and psychology. The appendix includes the signatures of 30 other law professors.

The case they are lobbying the Supreme Court to hear comes from Idaho. In December, the state’s highest court upheld a sentence of life without parole for John Delling, who shot and killed two Idaho men and wounded another in 2007.

There is no dispute among prosecutors, Mr. Delling’s lawyers and the Idaho courts that his paranoid schizophrenia led him to kill.

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that that the state ban on the insanity defense doesn’t violate Mr. Delling’s due process rights under the state and U.S. constitutions. The Idaho high court also rejected arguments that the state ban violates Mr. Delling’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

What are the chances the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the case? It has declined to consider the constitutionality of Iowa’s insanity-defense ban on at least four other occasions, most recently in 2005.

The Volokh Conspiracy and PrawfsBlawg have more here and here.

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