The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case from
Idaho testing whether the federal Constitution requires states to
provide criminal defendants with a right to claim they are innocent
by reason of insanity.
All but four states Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Kansas permit
criminal defendants to assert the insanity defense. The four states
dropped the provision in the early 1980s after John Hinckley was
found not guilty by reason of insanity in his attempted
assassination of President Ronald Reagan.
The high court has never ruled on whether the 14th Amendments due
process clause and/or the Eighth Amendments ban on cruel and unusual
punishment require those four states to provide an insanity defense.
The court did not comment on its refusal to take up the case.
However, three justices dissented from the action.
The law has long recognized that criminal punishment is not
appropriate for those who, by reason of insanity, cannot tell right
from wrong, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer in a three-page dissent
joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. If a
defendant establishes an insanity defense, he is not criminally
liable, though the government may confine him civilly for as long as
he continues to pose a danger to himself or to others by reason of
his mental illness, Justice Breyer wrote.
In contrast, Idahos law mandates that a defendants mental
condition shall not be a defense to any charge of criminal conduct.
Rather than a blanket insanity defense, Idahos approach permits
defense lawyers to present evidence at trial that their clients
mental illness undercut his or her ability to form the necessary
Also, judges in Idaho are required at sentencing to consider the
defendants capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the criminal
The issue arose in an appeal on behalf of John Joseph Delling,
who pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and was
sentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Delling, who has a history of mental illness, was under the
delusion that former high school classmates and other associates
were attempting to sap his energy and deplete his power in a way
that would eventually kill him. Instead of allowing that to happen,
Delling drew up a list of seven people he believed he needed to kill
to save his own life.
Delling shot his first victim several times, but the man lived.
He shot his second and third targets in the head. Both died.
Prosecutors said that, at the time of Dellings arrest, four other
names remained on his kill list.
Dellings lawyers said their client suffered from extensive
delusions and believed he was acting in self-defense. They said
Delling lacked the ability to form a rational understanding of the
wrongfulness of his conduct.
Under those circumstances, they said, he should be permitted to
claim the insanity defense.
Prosecutors in Idaho disagreed. …