A Supreme Court Ruling Could Spell An End To The Insanity Defense In Texas

If the Texas Legislature wanted to end defendants’ ability to plead insanity, an expert says the high court probably wouldn’t stand in the way.

By Alexandra HartApril 10, 2020 12:04 pm,

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision last month that could have major implications for Texas. In a 6-3 ruling, the court held that a Kansas law effectively eliminating the insanity defense is not, as the plaintiffs argued, unconstitutional.

In Kahler v. Kansas, a defendant convicted of murder and sentenced to death challenged his conviction on the grounds that he was unable to mount a defense because he claimed he didn’t know right from wrong. 

Lynne Rambo is professor of law at Texas A&M University. She tells the Texas Standard that Kansas law allows people to be convicted of a crime if they know what they are doing when they “pull the trigger and kill someone, whether or not they are in a state that makes it difficult for them to appreciate that what they’re doing is wrong.”

Rambo says that in many states, including Texas, an insanity defense can be mounted if the defendant didn’t know what he or she was doing, or did not know that the actions were wrong. 

“Mr. Kahler wanted the opportunity to argue both of those because he didn’t really have the ability to argue that he didn’t know what he was doing,” Rambo says.

The terms under which a matter like the insanity defense is allowed are typically left to the states, Rambo says, and that was a factor in the Supreme Court’s decision not to set a nationwide standard by which an insanity defense could be claimed.

“The court is not willing to find, typically, that there is a constitutional requirement unless there is an extremely strong tradition of using a particular criminal procedure,” she says.

Rambo says the Kansas decision suggests the Supreme Court would not interfere if Texas wanted to change or eliminate the statute that allows for a defense based on insanity.


Written by Shelly Brisbin.