U.S. Supreme Court Considers Crucial Criminal Defendants’ Rights, Including Survival of Insanity Defense
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two very important criminal cases: Kahler v. Kansas, which examines whether states can legally eliminate the insanity defense, or whether that violates citizens’ eighth and 14th Amendment rights, and Ramos v. Louisiana, which considers whether the 14th Amendment requires states to guarantee the Sixth Amendment’s mandate of a unanimous jury verdict, as we discuss below.
Kahler v. Kansas
Kraig Kahler was convicted of murdering his two daughters, ex-wife, and ex-mother-in-law in 2009 and sentenced to death in the state of Kansas, which had eliminated the insanity defense by way of state statute. As a result, Kahler argues that both his eighth Amendment protections from cruel and unusual punishment and 14th Amendment right to due process were violated because he was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong when he committed his crimes, and was blocked from presenting the insanity defense as an affirmative defense. Kansas’ argument is that its statute is still constitutional, because, while the state no longer has an affirmative defense called “insanity,” defendants can still present evidence of a mental defect or disease in order to avoid criminal liability, therefore preserving their constitutional rights. Kansas has also stated that it has reasonably determined that anyone who intentionally and voluntarily kills someone else is culpable, regardless of whether they know whether their actions are right or wrong from a moral perspective.
A number of law professors, philosophers, and the American Bar Association have responded by filing amicus briefs arguing that Kansas’ law is unconstitutional because while a mentally ill defendant can form the intent to commit a crime, he or she can still be unable to tell right from wrong, and a fair society does not punish those who cannot understand the consequences of their actions. If someone has the intent to kill but is unable to judge the morality of the act, they should not be held responsible by virtue of their mental illness.
Ramos v. Louisiana
Evangelisto Ramos was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole with a 10-2 jury verdict because Louisiana previously allowed juries to convicted defendants of noncapital felonies with a minimum of nine out of 12 jurors. Ramos now argues that the origins of the non unanimity rule in the state has racial motivations, and while Louisiana has, since Ramos’ case, approved a state constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury verdicts for offenses committed after January 1, 2019, the question of what to do about verdicts reached before then (like Ramos’) still remains.
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