Insanity Defense Appeal Turned Away by U.S. High Court

A divided U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider whether the Constitution requires the insanity defense to be an option for criminal defendants, leaving intact an Idaho murder conviction.

The justices today rejected an appeal from John Joseph Delling, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murdering two friends in 2007. Three justices -- Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor -- said they would have considered Delling’s appeal.

Delling, who suffers from acute paranoid schizophrenia, was under the delusional belief that the friends were killing him by taking his energy, according to a psychologist who testified.

“The law has long recognized that criminal punishment is not appropriate for those who, by reason of insanity, cannot tell right from wrong,” Breyer wrote.

Five states -- Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Kansas -- have passed laws abolishing the insanity defense since 1979, though it was reinstated in Nevada by that state’s supreme court. Delling’s lawyers contended the insanity defense has centuries-old roots and continues to be honored in most of the country.

The issue “strikes at the heart of the integrity of the criminal justice system,” Delling’s lawyers argued in his appeal.

The practical importance of the insanity defense is a matter of dispute. Idaho contends Delling is getting virtually the same treatment he would have received had he been allowed to use insanity as a defense to the murder charges.

Secure Facility

Delling is currently in a secure mental health facility and has been under a psychiatrist’s care throughout his incarceration, Idaho says.

“Idaho law generally entitles insane persons convicted of crimes to the same treatment as insane persons who are civilly committed,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence G. Wasden argued in court papers.

Wasden urged the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal and instead to leave intact the Idaho Supreme Court ruling that upheld Delling’s conviction.

States take a variety of legal approaches toward accused criminals with mental-health problems. Idaho permits conviction so long as the defendants have the capacity to understand what they are doing. Eleven other states permit a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, Idaho told the high court.

The case is Delling v. Idaho, 11-1515.

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