- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2020

A Kansas man will continue to await his execution behind bars after the Supreme Court on Monday shot down his claim that state law made it too difficult for him to mount an insanity defense.

James Kraig Kahler, who killed most of his family after learning his wife was having a love affair with a woman, complained that Kansas law didn’t allow him to be exonerated for his crime because he went crazy.

Kansas allows for a narrow insanity defense that requires a defendant to show a lack of intent and raise the mental illness during the sentencing hearing post-conviction. Unlike other states, though, Kansas does not exonerate a defendant if he or she can prove the mental illness prevented the defendant from understanding the crime was morally wrong.

Kahler, who was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to death, challenged the law, saying Kansas ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution by not considering if he understood right from wrong.

He tried to present an image of a perfect family. Then he discovered his wife was having an ongoing lesbian affair and she wanted a divorce. He spun into a depression and developed other mental illnesses “dissociating him from reality,” according to court papers.

Psychologists and psychiatrists prescribed him medications for anxiety and depression, but he refused to take them. Eleven years ago, Kahler drove from his parents’ house to his wife’s grandmother’s house, where his family was spending Thanksgiving. He shot four of them, only sparing his son, who was 10 years old at the time.

A recording of the murder captured Kahler in disbelief, saying, “Oh s–! I am going to kill her … God damn it!”

He gunned down his wife, Karen, 44, their two daughters, 18-year-old Emily and 16-year-old Lauren, and his wife’s 89-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Wright.

Most states allow defendants to show they aren’t criminally liable if they do not know the nature of their actions or couldn’t differentiate right from wrong. Kansas officials argued their law doesn’t abolish the insanity defense, only modifies it to place the focus on intent.

The state said Kahler had control of his actions, shooting his two teenage daughters but not his son, and noted he was successful in evading law enforcement the night of the murders.

“Abolishing the insanity defense would mean eliminating any consideration of insanity evidence. That is not what Kansas law does,” the state argued.

The justices, in a 6-3 ruling, sided with the state, upholding the law, noting it allows mental health evidence at sentencing and allows a defendant to argue there was a lack of intent at trial.

“Contrary to Kahler’s view, Kansas takes account of mental health at both trial and sentencing. It has just not adopted the particular insanity defense Kahler would like,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court Monday.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, though, would have sided with Kahler.

In the dissent authored by Justice Breyer, he reasoned Kansas departs from legal tradition by not having its criminal law require a higher standard for individual culpability.

“Kansas argues that the insane, provided they are capable of intentional action, are culpable and should be held liable for their antisocial conduct,” he wrote. “It is a conclusion that in my view runs contrary to a legal tradition that embodies a fundamental precept of our criminal law and that stretches back, at least, to the origins of our nation.”

The insanity defense is different from competency to stand trial. A judge decides if the accused is of a sound-enough mind to go through with the trial.

That has no bearing on guilt or innocence.

Insanity, meanwhile, is an argument raised by the defendant during trial, and the jury is asked to decide about the accused person’s sanity at the time of the crime.

The high court also issued four other rulings Monday, all electronically because the court is closed to the public on account of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two dealt with procedural issues, with one specifically aimed at deadlines to file for reopening of deportation cases and another over an appeals court’s review of factual arguments not addressed in the lower court ruling.

In another challenge, the court held Congress can’t discharge a state’s immunity from copyright infringement actions, and the justices also ruled racial discrimination claims in contract law disputes can go forward so long as the plaintiff can prove race was the reason the contract was not executed.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide