The day after Thanksgiving in 2009, James Kahler went to the home of his estranged wife's grandmother, where he shot the two women, along with his two teenage daughters. No one—not even Kahler's attorneys—disputes that he killed the four relatives. Instead, his lawyers argue that he was suffering from depression so severe that he experienced extreme emotional disturbance, dissociating him from reality. What had been an open-and-shut death penalty case—Kahler was convicted and sentenced in 2011—was upended when the US Supreme Court said this past week that it would consider whether Kansas unconstitutionally abolished his right to use insanity as a defense, the AP reports. A ruling from the nation's highest court could have far-reaching implications for mentally ill defendants across the nation.
Kansas is one of five states where a traditional insanity defense in which a person must understand the difference between right and wrong before being found guilty of a crime isn't allowed. Instead, someone can cite "mental disease or defect" as a partial defense but must prove that he didn't intend to commit the crime. The other states with similar laws are Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. "A favorable decision in this case would make it clear that the Constitution requires that a defendant be able to understand the difference between right and wrong before being found guilty, and, in cases like Mr. Kahler's, put to death," says his defense attorney, Meryle Carver-Allmond. Kahler's lawyers argue that although Kahler knew he was shooting human beings, his mental state was so disturbed at the time that he was unable to control his actions.
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