Eighth Amendment

The technical legal question the Supreme Court will address in Kahler v. Kansas is whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense. In more colloquial terms, the question is whether states may abolish a defense to criminal liability that mental illness prevented a defendant from knowing his or her actions were wrong. Five state have done so—Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah.

James Kahler was sentenced to death for fatally shooting his wife, her grandmother, and his two daughters. Kahler presented the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist who stated that Kahler was suffering from severe major depression at the time of the crime and that “his capacity to manage his own behavior had been severely degraded so that he couldn't refrain from doing what he did.”

In Madison v. Alabama the Supreme Court held 5-3 that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a person who lacks a “rational understanding” due to mental illness for why the death penalty has been imposed to be put to death regardless of what mental illness the person is suffering from.  

Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1985. Since then he has suffered a series of strokes and has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. He claims he no longer remembers the crime for which he has been sentenced to death.

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments disallows executing a person who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing.  The Court “clarified the scope of that category in Panetti v. Quarterman [2007] by focusing on whether a prisoner can ‘reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution.’”

In an unauthored opinion in Moore v. Texas II the Supreme Court concluded Bobby James Moore has intellectual disability. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002) the Supreme Court held that persons with intellectual disability can’t be executed.

As the dissenting Justices point out, the Supreme Court typically opines whether a lower court has correctly applied as a standard and sends the case back to the lower court if it didn’t. The Supreme Court usually doesn’t apply the standard itself. It may have done so in this case because it previously held the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals failed to correctly apply the intellectual disability standard to Moore in Texas v. Moore (2017) (Moore I).

The issue in Timbs v. Indiana is whether the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) Supreme Court amicus brief rejects the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates all rights included in the first eight Amendments. It also argues that the forfeiture in this case isn’t unconstitutionally excessive.

Russell Bucklew was sentence to death for murder, kidnapping, and rape. He suffers from cavernous hemangioma, which causes clumps of weak, malformed blood vessels and tumors to grow in his face, head, neck, and throat.

Missouri intended to execute him by lethal injection. But he claims that killing him by gas, still on the books in Missouri but not used since 1965, would substantially reduce his risk of pain and suffering given his cavernous hemangioma. The Eighth Circuit rejected his request.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide four issues in Bucklew v. Precythe. Until merits briefs are filed and oral argument is held in the fall it difficult to know what the Supreme Court will focus on. For now, the Eighth Circuit opinion provides the best clues.

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