Hello everyone! I am so excited to announce a new opportunity with you!
This term I will be a journalist covering Supreme Court decisions! This is a wonderful opportunity that will allow me to be in the courtroom while the Justices hear oral arguments! On the first day I even had a chance to see notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg).
The first case of the term was Kahler v. Kansas which examined whether it was unconstitutional to abolish the insanity defense in a criminal case.
Since the 1800s courts have recognized the M’Naghten Test. This test determines whether someone would be liable for a crime if they were deemed insane. The test notes that ” A person is not criminally responsible for an act when a mental disability prevented the person from knowing either (1) the nature and quality of the act or (2) whether the act was wrong.” – Black’s Law Dictionary.
Look, I’m not here to throw a bunch of legalese at you, but this test has been around for a while. Under this test, if a person were found insane they would be admitted into a mental institution rather than a prison.
Here’s the tea about this case: Kahler was married to Karen. While married, Karen had an affair with another woman. Kahler initially agreed but began suffering from depression and jealousy due to his wife’s betrayal. As a result, he lost his marriage and his employment. Then, around the Thanksgiving holiday in 2009, he traveled to Karen’s grandmother’s house killing Karen, his daughters and Karen’s grandmother. Kahler argued the insanity defense and the state of Kansas rejects this application. After much deliberation, this case made it up all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
THIS ARGUMENT WAS FASCINATING!
I liked how the oral argument captured three big ideas: morality, mental culpability and mental health. When looking back on the oral argument, the hypothetical presented by Justice Breyer questioned whether two insane defendants would receive the same punishment if Defendant A killed Person 1 while Defendant B killed Person 2 due to disembodied voices prompting him to kill. I believe this hypothetical is conditional on the definition of mental illness. There were impressive arguments on both sides challenging moral culpability and its connection to the mens rea of the crime at issue. However, I believe that the true question is: What is a mental illness?
Although most insanity defenses fail, I couldn’t help but expect to hear more from the argument on why Kahler was seen as “insane.” Could this be a slight indication on how the law and society perceives mental illness? If there were more harmony between law and science, this question would be easier to answer.
Thousands of people suffer from Traumatic Brain Injuries each year. In most recent years, former NFL and other professional athletes have been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that alters the function and structure of the brain due to sub-concussive hits to the head while participating in sports. Neurologists, medical doctors and other scientists have shown through literature that this disease causes an altered level of consciousness or mental confusion. If we were to diminish the insanity defense, what would happen if a former athlete with CTE kills his family? Or, if CTE is linked to participation in youth, college, or high school sports, would this influence the courts rationale for defendants who commit these crimes?
As society begins to dive deeper into mental health, it will be interesting to see how scientific and behavioral studies influence criminal cases.
This is shaping up to be one interesting Supreme Court term and there are several cases that combine law and entertainment as well.
Super humbled about this opportunity and looking forward to sharing this with you all.
Until then, “be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”-Garrison Keillor