Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Will the Supreme Court Address Whether the Government May Abolish the Insanity Defense?


The Supreme Court’s new term started October 1st, but the Court met on September 24th to consider whether to grant new cases.  One case that the Court is still considering hearing is Delling v. Idaho.[1]  The main issue in Delling is whether Idaho violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by abolishing the insanity defense in criminal cases.  The Court has never addressed what the answer to this question might be; if the Court hears it, Delling will be the first time states have any guidance as to the constitutionality of outlawing the insanity defense in criminal cases.

Most crimes require that the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to commit an act.  The insanity defense usually involves the question of whether a person was too insane to be considered legally responsible for his actions.  This defense could be a complete defense to the crime, so if proven, the person would not have to serve time in jail.  In 2005, Idaho changed the law so that insanity was no longer allowed as a defense.[2]  John Delling, the defendant in this case, was prevented from using insanity as a defense by that Idaho law.  Instead, he would have to prove that he could not form the intent to commit a crime because he is insane.  This will allow the defendant to defend himself against a charge that requires a specific kind of intent, but not against other charges.  For example, a defendant may be able to defend himself from being convicted of first-degree murder, which requires intent, but not involuntary manslaughter, which does not.  The insanity defense, on the other hand, would have absolved the defendant of criminal responsibility.

Delling was accused of killing two people and deemed competent to stand trial in February of 2008.[3]  He then agreed to a conditional plea, where he would plea guilty to both killings, but not give up his right to appeal the Idaho law preventing him from presenting an insanity defense.  Delling was sentenced to life in prison following this plea.

Delling’s main argument is that Idaho’s law preventing him from presenting an insanity defense is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees every person due process before their life, liberty, or property is taken away.[4]   Delling argued that by not allowing him the opportunity to present insanity as a complete defense, Idaho deprived him of his due process rights. 

The Idaho Supreme Court disagreed, stating that numerous cases before Delling’s took no offense to the law abolishing the insanity defense in Idaho.  The court also stated that the United States Supreme Court had several opportunities to state whether Idaho acted constitutionally when it abolished the insanity defense.  Despite these opportunities, the Supreme Court has never said whether or not a state must allow a defendant to pose an insanity defense.  In fact in footnote twenty in Arizona v. Clark, the Supreme Court specifically acknowledged that it had never weighed in on this question.[5]  That footnote stated the Court did not need to address that question in Clark and left the issue for another time.

The Court was very careful not to state how it would ultimately reach such a question.  The fact that the Supreme Court felt the need to acknowledge that there may be a constitutional issue when some states abolish the insanity defense should mean that the Court would eventually grant certiorari to address the issue.  All Delling can ask now is whether the Court is ready to address that question in his case. 

But regardless of how the Court ultimately decides whether states can abolish the insanity defense, the Court should hear Delling’s case.  Some states now allow the insanity defense, while others do not.  Someone who commits a crime in Idaho will not have the same defenses available as if he committed that crime in another state.   This creates a discrepancy of justice across state lines.  While laws in one state are frequently different than laws in another state, this is a question of what is constitutionally allowed.  If the Court decides that states are allowed to abolish the insanity defense, at least other states will have a choice to make.  Right now those states may be waiting on the Court to offer guidance. 

Conversely, if the Court decides that abolishing the insanity defense is unconstitutional, there are people in jail in Idaho right now who might not need to be there.  The insanity defense involves whether a person could be held accountable for his actions; if the Court agrees that the insanity defense cannot be abolished, it should apply its decision retroactively.  Defendants who were not responsible for their actions should not stay locked away simply because they committed a crime before the Supreme Court addressed this question.  If the ruling would apply retroactively, this is all the more reason that the Court should hear Delling’s case now.  Otherwise, state courts will have to hold more retrials to see if a defendant was criminally insane at the time of their actions.  The Court should grant certiorari in Delling to decide this question.

Bonnie Lindemann
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image by: Phil Roeder




[1] http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/05pdf/05-5966.pdf


[2] http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv


[3] http://www.isc.idaho.gov/opinions/delling%2036920.pdf


[4] http://law.justia.com/codes/idaho/2005/18ftoc/180020007.html


[5] http://www.isc.idaho.gov/opinions/delling%2036920.pdf

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