Politics

Supreme Court puts 'insanity defense' and split juries in focus as it hears arguments over two grisly murder cases

Key Points
  • The Supreme Court is kicking off its new term with arguments in two grisly murder cases that will test constitutional provisions concerning the rights of those accused of criminal offenses.
  • The cases, which the justices will hear over the course of two hours on Monday, concern whether the state can abolish the so-called "insanity defense" and the right of defendants to a unanimous jury in state trials.
  • They were brought by two men convicted of murder in Kansas and Louisiana.
People wait in line outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 18, 2019.
Erin Scott | Reuters

The Supreme Court is kicking off its new term with arguments in two grisly murder cases that will test constitutional provisions concerning the rights of those accused of criminal offenses.

The cases, which the justices will hear over the course of two hours on Monday, concern whether the state can abolish the so-called "insanity defense" and the right of defendants to a unanimous jury in state trials.

They were brought by two men convicted of murder in Kansas and Louisiana.

The justices will hear first from attorneys for James Kraig Kahler, who was convicted of murdering his wife, two children, and his wife's grandmother in a fit of rage over Thanksgiving weekend in 2009. After his wife left him and pursued a relationship with a female co-worker, Kahler grew obsessed, turned to stalking, and was fired from his job.

While in a state that one doctor described as "stress induced short-term dissociation," he shot and killed his family members while chasing them room to room through their home in a spree that was partially recorded on the grandmother's Life Alert system.

Kahler's attorneys have argued that an idiosyncrasy of Kansas law prevented their client from receiving fair trial before he was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to death. In Kansas and four other states, defendants are barred from invoking the so-called "insanity defense," or claiming that a mental illness prevented them from understanding that their actions were wrong.

"Although he knew that he was shooting human beings, his mental state was so disturbed at the time that he was unable to control his actions," attorney Jeffrey Green wrote in a brief with the court.

Green wrote that Kansas's abolition of the insanity defense violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, which bar cruel and unusual punishment and guarantee due process. It "defies a fundamental, centuries-old precept of our legal system: People cannot be punished for crimes for which they are not morally culpable," he wrote.

The case has spawned an unusual flurry of philosophical and medical debate, prompting briefs from professors of philosophy and the American Psychiatric Association, both in Kahler's favor. The American Civil Liberties Union also submitted a brief arguing that the abolition of the insanity defense is unconstitutional. On the other side, the Trump administration has weighed in in favor of Kansas.

"This Court has long recognized that States have broad discretion to make the moral, legal, and medical judgments necessary to determine when mental illness should excuse criminal conduct," Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote in a brief with the top court.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled against Kahler in May of 2018, finding that eliminating the insanity defense does not violate either the state or federal constitution.

Louisiana man convicted of murder by a split jury

In the second case of the day, the justices will hear from attorneys for Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted in 2016 of stabbing to death a woman named Trinece Fedison, and leaving her body in a trash can. Ramos, who was the last person known to have seen her alive, denies that he killed her, and said that he saw her getting into a car with "two black men" after he and Fedison had sex.

Ramos was convicted by a split jury after 10 members of a twelve-person jury found him guilty, and two did not. At the time he was convicted, only Louisiana and Oregon allowed for convictions by split juries.

The Supreme Court held in the 1972 case Apodaca v. Oregon that the Sixth Amendment requires verdicts in federal cases to be unanimous, but did not apply the unanimity requirement to the states. In a case decided in February, the court noted that this is the only instance of a Bill of Rights protection that applies differently at the federal and state level.

The disparate treatment of the Sixth Amendment in state and federal trials is unlikely to persist, according to Darryl Brown, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

In the Apodaca case, eight justices wanted to apply the jury clause equally at both the state and federal levels, but they disagreed on how to do it, he said.

"Four of them thought that it didn't have to be unanimous in any case, and four thought it had to be unanimous in every case," Brown said.

Only Justice Lewis Powell, the ninth justice, believed that it should apply differently at the state and federal levels, and that is ultimately what stuck.

"It's fair to say that we got there just because the court was split and there was one idiosyncratic justice," Brown said.

Applying the unanimity requirement to the states is backed by civil rights groups, which say that minorities are disproportionately targeted by split juries.

As Ramos's cases was working its way through the legal system, a newspaper in Louisiana, The Advocate, published an investigation that showed that black defendants were 30% more likely to be convicted by split juries than white defendants.

That investigation ultimately won the Pulitzer prize. In November 2018, the state amended its constitution, barring split juries for crimes committed since the start of 2019.

But that amendment won't help Ramos, who has asked the Supreme Court to overturn its holding in Apodaca, and formally hold that unanimous juries are required by the Constitution for state trials.

That prospect has alarmed some states. But both Louisiana and Oregon, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the justices, have said that doing what Ramos has asked for could unleash a torrent of petitions from prisoners convicted by split juries.

In the time since the Supreme Court agreed to hear Ramos's case, hundreds of defendants filed so-called "Ramos claims" in Oregon, wrote Ellen Rosenblum, the state's attorney general.

"But given the time lag between trial and appeal, and the time it will take this Court to issue any decision in this case, that number could easily exceed a thousand cases," she wrote.

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