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Supreme Court rejects Idaho case on prohibiting the insanity defense

Idaho is one of four states that do not permit criminal defendants to claim they are innocent by reason of insanity. On Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to take a case testing whether an insanity defense is a constitutional right.

By Staff writer / November 26, 2012

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer sits for a photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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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.

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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 Amendment’s due process clause and/or the Eighth Amendment’s 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, Idaho’s law mandates that a defendant’s “mental condition shall not be a defense to any charge of criminal conduct.”

Rather than a blanket insanity defense, Idaho’s approach permits defense lawyers to present evidence at trial that their client’s mental illness undercut his or her ability to form the necessary criminal intent.

Also, judges in Idaho are required at sentencing to consider the defendant’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the criminal conduct.

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.

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