In the U.S., we are a country governed by the rule of law. The same is true of many nations around the rule. Law creates the infrastructure of our civilized world, an ordered, logical way to resolve conflict. We are also a world where a quarter of the population will, at some point in their life, battle mental illness. And how these two issues intersect can be a very complicated process.
The most recent example of this is Kahler v. Kansas, a Supreme Court decision rejecting the idea that the U.S. Constitution requires the insanity defense. At issue in this case was a Kansas statute that allows defendants to introduce evidence of mental illness as it relates to criminal intent. Evidence of mental illness can also be offered during sentencing in support of a more lenient sentence. However, beyond that, mental illness is not allowed as a defense. So you may intend to commit a crime, but believe you are morally justified in doing so or may believe that you can’t stop yourself. Such a scenario is not defensible under Kansas law.
The example given in the case is that Person A shoots Person B. If Person A, due to mental illness, did not understand the function or consequences of a gun, they could not have formed the criminal intent necessary for a conviction. Yet, if Person A in this scenario understands the function of a gun, but believes they are directed to do so by God, or that they are somehow saving the human race by shooting Person B, that person would still be guilty.
I have several problems with this case. First, I don’t think this was the right case to present this question. The defendant in this case committed a heinous crime, then acted in the way that suggests he knew he was morally and legally culpable, so I suspect he would have lost under any circumstance. His defense, that severe depression made him incapable of stopping himself, seems inconsistent with his actions. (Just a side note, the Court has also rejected the idea of an inescapable impulse test).
However, another problem I have with this case is how the justices treated mental illness. They did what justices do, the looked at the law. They looked at the law all the way back to the evolution of common law in England before the U.S. was even a nation. The problem with this is that our understanding of mental illness has evolved tremendously since thee 1700’s. Indeed, one test they consider essential considers those with severe mental illness to be no better than wild beasts. Talk about fueling the stigma!
How the law treats mental illness is a complicated issue, which is why the Court is right in its conclusion that states should have considerable leeway in how they craft answers to this difficult question. Yet Constitutional Due Process demands that there be a floor below which states cannot proceed. The three dissenting justices in this case seem to understand that, but sadly the six justices in the majority fail to recognize that reality. And I fear that the result will be that individuals with mental illness who are caught up in the criminal justice system will continue to slip through the cracks.
And I believe that the first step towards combating this is knowledge. After all, knowledge is power. To that end, I have created a Mental Health Law page, which will include links to law review articles and other resources so that we can better understand this important issue. Feel free to check it out, and let me know if you have any resources that you think should be added.
And as always, thanks for reading.