Penn Law professor Stephen Morse co-authored an amicus brief in June arguing against the abolition of the insanity defense. The brief was presented to the Kansas Supreme Court last week.
An amicus brief is a legal document written by people who are not involved in the case but have strong interests and expertise in the subject matter, according to the Public Health Law Center. The authors of the brief are attempting to provide an argument that the court should consider going forward.
Morse, who specializes in interdisciplinary work between law and psychology, worked with University of Virginia professor Richard Bonnie, who boasts a similar interdisciplinary background, to write the brief that seeks to overturn the ruling made in the Kansas Supreme Court case Kahler v. Kansas that authorized the state of Kansas to abolish the insanity defense, according to Penn Law News. Morse and Bonnie wrote the brief on behalf of criminal and mental health law professors.
“We had ex-prosecutors, people known to be prosecutorial in orientation, and also people from the defense side, including former defense attorneys, public defenders, and academics with a defense orientation [sign the brief],” Morse told Penn Law News.
Morse and Bonnie argue in the brief that abolishing the insanity defense is unconstitutional, citing that it would contradict the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
"There is no dispute that severe mental disorder can strongly affect an individual’s cognitive and self-regulation capacities," they wrote in the brief. "In extreme cases, the defects are sufficiently grave to negate any attribution of fault because such offenders do not know, understand or appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions.
They added that criminal punishment is unfair because perpetrators with severe mental disorders "are not responsible for their criminal conduct.”
The Kahler v. Kansas case, in which the brief was filed, centers on James Kahler, who murdered his wife, two of his three children, and his wife’s grandmother, according to Penn Law News. His defense argued that he exhibited symptoms of multiple mental illnesses and could not be held legally responsible for the murders as a result. But under a Kansas statute, the insanity defense had been abolished in the state. Kahler was convicted by the jury and the decision was affirmed upon appeal, as the Kansas Supreme Court rejected his challenge to the statute’s constitutionality.
Bonnie and Morse, who also serves as the associate director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at Penn, have previously co-authored an amicus brief on the insanity defense, according to Penn Law News. Signed by 52 law professors, they submitted their first brief in Delling v. Idaho in 2012, but the argument was rejected by the Supreme Court.
Correction: A previous version of this article neglected to specify that the amicus brief was presented in front of the Kansas Supreme Court, not the United States Supreme Court.
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