The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision Monday in the Kahler v. Kansas case, ruling 6-3 that states aren’t required to allow an insanity defense to show the defendant lacked the moral capacity to know right from wrong.

James “Kraig” Kahler, former director of Columbia Water & Light, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2011 for killing his estranged wife, two teenage daughters and his wife’s grandmother in Burlingame, Kansas, on Thanksgiving weekend 2009. His 10-year-old son escaped.

Kahler and his wife, Karen Kahler, were in the process of getting a divorce, and his attorney argued that Kahler was severely depressed and unable to control his actions the night of the quadruple murder.

Kansas abolished its insanity defense in 1995 changing it to a mens rea, or mental state, approach.

That meant the defense could no longer argue mental illness prevented the defendant from knowing an act was wrong. Instead, the argument could be made that due to mental illness, a defendant did not intentionally commit the crime — a key component of any conviction.

Kahler’s attorney argued that Kansas’ abolition of the insanity defense was unconstitutional because it violated Kahler’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment and his right to due process. The case was struck down by the Kansas Supreme Court in February 2018 and was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in October of last year.

Kahler’s legal team argued that someone who is mentally ill and cannot understand his actions are morally wrong cannot be held responsible for those actions, according to previous Missourian reporting.

The central argument was that Kansas law only addresses the defendant’s intent to commit the crime, not whether they are insane or don’t know right from wrong.

Kansas is one of four states that does not have an insanity defense. The Supreme Court’s ruling establishes that abolishing the insanity defense does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment or the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas concurring.

For the dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer delivered the opinion and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor concurred.

In her opinion, Kagan said the Kansas law did not abolish the insanity defense. She wrote that the question of an insanity test is not one of constitutional law but one to be left to the states.

“(Kansas) has just not adopted the particular insanity defense Kahler would like,” she said. “That choice is for Kansas to make — and, if it wishes, to remake and remake again as the future unfolds.”

Breyer said in his dissent that the Kansas law goes against legal tradition dating back to the origin of the nation.

“Our tradition demands that an insane defendant should not be found guilty in the first place.”

  • Public safety and health reporter, spring 2020 I am studying investigative journalism and political science. Reach me at danielleduclos@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • I'm the public safety and health editor at the Missourian and a professor in the School of Journalism. I'm experienced in directing investigative projects. Call me at (573) 882-1792 with story tips, ideas or complaints.

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