Justices turn down insanity defense case

Robert Barnes / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider where the Constitution requires states to allow the mentally ill to claim insanity as a defense against criminal charges.

The court gave no reason for turning down a challenge of Idaho’s decision not to allow the defense, and three justices objected.

“The law was long recognized that criminal punishment is not appropriate for those who, by reason of insanity, cannot tell right from wrong,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Four justices are required for the court to accept a case.

The court declined to review the conviction of John Joseph Delling, who had been sentenced to life in prison in Idaho over a 2007 crime spree that lasted weeks, covered 6,500 miles and culminated in two people dead and one seriously wounded. Killed were Delling’s childhood friend David Boss and Brad Morse, whom he had met playing online video games.

Delling, then 21, had become “a type of Jesus,” he later explained, and the men he attacked were stealing his “energy.”

All states and the federal government once allowed the insanity defense. But that changed with the public outrage over John Hinckley’s acquittal for reasons of insanity in his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Many states and the federal government reacted by shifting the burden of proving insanity to the defense. But four states — Idaho, Kansas, Utah and Montana — do not allow the defense. Without it, Delling pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Delling’s lawyer, Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, told the court that the “moral integrity of the criminal law has depended, in part, on the insanity defense.”