SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that states can prevent criminal defendants from pleading insanity without violating their constitutional rights, a decision affirming Utah’s strict insanity defense.
The ruling could also prompt other states across the country to toughen standards for defendants who wish to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
The justices’ 6-3 decision came in a case from Kansas, where James Kraig Kahler was sentenced to death for killing his estranged wife, two teenage daughters and his wife’s grandmother.
Kahler wanted to mount an insanity defense, but Kansas is one of four states that eliminated or severely restricted a defendant’s ability to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Utah are the others.
A person in those states can’t raise a traditional insanity defense, which allows them to be found guilty only if they understand right from wrong.
One Utah lawmaker has tried to change that in the past two years, but her bill has failed without enough support.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said the Supreme Court decision upholding Utah’s law may now make it harder for her to convince other state lawmakers that changes are needed.
“We’ll have to reevaluate, that’s for sure, and take some time to see,” Moss said Monday.
“It’s hard for us to imagine that somebody could carry out a brutal murder and not be punished for it,” Moss said, but she believes prisons are not equipped to handle and treat the most serious mental health conditions.
Utah’s narrow defense allows defendants to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but only if they couldn’t develop the intent to commit the crime.
It means, for example, the defense is available to a person who kills loved ones under the belief that Satan has taken over their bodies, but not a person who believes God ordered the killings.
Robert Liddiard, a longtime neighbor of Moss’ and a former nurse, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity last year in the 2017 stabbing deaths of his mother and father. Liddiard, who has schizophrenia, believed Satan had killed and reanimated their bodies, so he qualified for Utah’s narrow defense.
He is now in the state’s psychiatric facility, the Utah State Hospital, after being sentenced in January.
In the opinion released Monday, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court that “Kansas takes account of mental health at both trial and sentencing. It has just not adopted the particular insanity defense Kahler would like. That choice is for Kansas to make — and, if it wishes, to remake and remake again as the future unfolds,” Kagan wrote in upholding a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court.
Kagan’s three liberal colleagues dissented. Kansas “has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries: that the defendant, due to mental illness, lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for himself and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Paul Cassell, a victim rights attorney who helped represent a relative of the slain family members in the Kansas case, agrees that states should retain wide latitude to craft their own laws.
“I’ve never been completely convinced that we need to change the criminal law,” Cassell said. “What we may need to be focusing on is what kinds of resources are available to people after they’ve been through the criminal justice process.”
While Utah is among the most restrictive, other states have varying degrees of limitations, he said.
Criminal defense attorney Mark Moffat, who has previously urged lawmakers to pass Moss’ proposal, called the court’s decision “disappointing.” He said the law may be constitutional, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise policy.
“We have moved away from that by modifying our defense of insanity to its current form,” he said. “We have shrunk that defense so much that it is rarely, rarely applicable to defendants who suffer from mental illness.”
While standards for the insanity defense have changed over hundreds of years, the notion that only those who can tell right from wrong can be held criminally liable has been constant, he said.
He said Utah had long been compassionate toward those with mental illness and built one of the first psychiatric hospitals west of the Mississippi.