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Law School Case Brief

Kahler v. Kansas - 140 S. Ct. 1021 (2020)


Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-5209 (2018 Cum. Supp.) provides that mental disease or defect is not otherwise a defense. § 21-5209. In other words, Kansas does not recognize any additional way that mental illness can produce an acquittal. A defendant’s moral incapacity cannot exonerate him, as it would if Kansas had adopted both original prongs of M’Naghten's Case. Assume, for example, that a defendant killed someone because of an insane delusion that God had ordained the sacrifice. The defendant knew what he was doing (killing another person), but he could not tell moral right from wrong; indeed, he thought the murder morally justified. In many States, that fact would preclude a criminal conviction, although it would almost always lead to commitment in a mental health facility. In Kansas, by contrast, evidence of a mentally ill defendant’s moral incapacity—or indeed, of anything except his cognitive inability to form the needed mens rea—can play no role in determining guilt.


Kansas charged petitioner James Kahler with capital murder after he shot and killed four family members. Prior to trial, Kahler had argued that Kansas’s insanity defense violated due process because it permits the State to convict a defendant whose mental illness prevented him from distinguishing right from wrong. The court disagreed and the jury returned a conviction. During the penalty phase, Kahler was free to raise any argument he wished that mental illness should mitigate his sentence, but the jury still imposed the death penalty. The Kansas Supreme Court rejected Kahler’s due process argument on appeal. The United States Supreme Court granted Kahler's petition for certiorari review.


Does the Due Process Clause require States to adopt the moral-incapacity test from M’Naghten’s Case?




The Due Process Clause does not require States to provide an insanity defense that acquits a defendant who could not “distinguish right from wrong” when committing his crime—or, otherwise put, the Clause does not require States to adopt the moral-incapacity test from M’Naghten’s Case, 10 Cl. & Fin. 200, 8 Eng. Rep. 718. The United States Supreme Court declined to require that Kansas adopt an insanity test turning on a defendant’s ability to recognize that his crime was morally wrong. Any manifestation of mental illness that Kansas’s guilt-phase insanity defense disregards could come in later to mitigate culpability and lessen punishment.

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