Legal News
Court to Decide if States Can Abolish Insanity Defense
Psychiatric News
Volume 47 Number 19 page 14a-14a

Four U.S. states disallow use of the insanity defense in criminal cases. Idaho is one of those states, and John Joseph Delling is currently being held in solitary confinement at Idaho’s Maximum Security Institution for a murderous crime spree committed while he was experiencing delusions associated with paranoid schizophrenia.

In July, APA and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) filed an amicus brief supporting Delling’s request that the U.S. Supreme Court hear his case and reject Idaho’s abolition of the insanity defense. He contends that disallowing him the option of an insanity defense is incompatible with fundamental principles of criminal law. (The other states to have rejected the insanity defense are Kansas, Montana, and Utah.)

“This case presents the question, not before resolved by [the Supreme Court], whether the Constitution permits criminal conviction and punishment of a defendant who, by reason of mental disease or defect, could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct at the time of the offense,” APA and AAPL maintained in their brief.

In 2007, at age 21, Delling shot and killed two men in Idaho and seriously wounded another in Arizona. According to a July 22 article in the Washington Post, Delling initially said he acted in self-defense against the men, two of whom were former classmates, because they were “stealing his ‘energy.’ ”

Delling was charged with two counts of second-degree murder, for which he was not deemed fit to stand trial until one year later.

After an unsuccessful effort to convince Idaho’s Fourth Judicial District Court to declare the state’s insanity defense law unconstitutional, Delling entered a conditional guilty plea. At sentencing, the district court recognized that Delling “unquestionably suffers from a very serious mental illness” and lacked “the ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct.”

However, the court ultimately sentenced Delling to life in prison on the grounds that he poses a “risk to society,” maintaining that his “ability to plan intelligently and rationally is not … impaired” and that his “prognosis for improvement or rehabilitation is at best speculative.”

In December 2011, the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s conviction, rejecting Delling’s argument that abolition of the insanity defense violates due process and abridges the Sixth Amendment right of those on trial to present evidence in their own defense. The court also rejected the argument that Idaho’s stance on the insanity defense violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Stanford Law School Professor Jeffrey Fisher subsequently filed a petition on Delling’s behalf requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case and make a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of the insanity defense.

“For hundreds of years, Anglo-American law has recognized that it is unfair to punish people whose offending behavior was driven by their severe mental illness,” said Paul Appelbaum, M.D., the Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law at Columbia University, chair of the APA Committee on Judicial Action, and a past APA president, in an interview with Psychiatric News. “The moral basis of punishment is premised on notions of individual responsibility and culpability that simply do not apply when, for example, crimes are based on a person’s delusional view of the world.”

Separate amicus briefs in support of Delling’s petition were filed by the Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) and a coalition of 52 criminal law and mental health law professors.

The CAC’s brief echoes Delling’s argument that disallowing the insanity defense violates due process and Eighth Amendment rights. The law professors’ brief similarly invokes the right to due process, as well as emphasizes the “moral necessity” of the insanity defense. The professors also dismiss as insubstantial several commonly raised objections to the defense, including concerns that acquittal of “insane” defendants endangers public safety and that “sane” individuals may use the defense to beat the system.

[John Joseph Delling v. Idaho, U.S. Supreme Court 11-1515] inline-graphic-1.gif

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