US Supreme Court to review Kansas’ lack of insanity defense

Legal Events

The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to consider how far states can go toward eliminating the insanity defense in criminal trials as it reviews the case of a Kansas man sentenced to die for killing four relatives.

The high court planned to hear arguments Monday in James Kraig Kahler’s case. He went to the home of his estranged wife’s grandmother about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Topeka the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 and fatally shot the two women and his two teenage daughters.

Not even Kahler’s attorneys have disputed that he killed them. They’ve argued that he was in the grips of a depression so severe that he experienced an extreme emotional disturbance that disassociated him from reality.

In seeking a not guilty verdict due to his mental state, his defense at his 2011 trial faced what critics see as an impossible legal standard. His attorneys now argue that Kansas violated the U.S. Constitution by denying him the right to pursue an insanity defense.

The nation’s highest court previously has given states broad latitude in how they treat mental illness in criminal trials, allowing five states, including Kansas, to abolish the traditional insanity defense. Kahler’s appeal raises the question of whether doing so denies defendants their guaranteed right to due legal process.

“Maybe they will establish some ground rules,” said Jeffrey Jackson, a law professor at Washburn University in Topeka. “They’ve been vague about what the standard is, and maybe now they’re going to tell us.”

Until 1996, Kansas followed a rule first outlined in 1840s England, requiring defendants pursuing an insanity defense to show that they were so impaired by a mental illness or defect that they couldn’t understand that their conduct was criminal. Now Kansas permits defendants to only cite “mental disease or defect” as a partial defense, and they must prove they didn’t intend to commit the specific crime. Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Utah have similar laws.

Christopher Slobogin, a professor of both law and psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University, said even seriously mentally ill defendants typically intend to the commit their crimes, even if their acts result from delusions.

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Workers’ Compensation Subrogation of Administrative Fees and Costs

When a worker covered by workers’ compensation makes a claim against a third party, the workers’ compensation insurance retains the right to subrogate against any recovery from that third party for all benefits paid to or on behalf of a claimant injured at work. When subrogating for more than basic medical and indemnity benefits, the Texas workers’ compensation subrogation statute provides that “the net amount recovered by a claimant in a third‑party action shall be used to reimburse the carrier for benefits, including medical benefits that have been paid for the compensable injury.” TX Labor Code § 417.002.

In fact, all 50 states provide for similar subrogation. However, none of them precisely outlines which payments or costs paid by a compensation carrier constitute “compensation” and can be recovered. The result is industry-wide confusion and an ongoing debate and argument with claimants’ attorneys over what can and can’t be included in a carrier’s lien for recovery purposes.

In addition to medical expenses, death benefits, funeral costs and/or indemnity benefits for lost wages and loss of earning capacity resulting from a compensable injury, workers’ compensation insurance carriers also expend considerable dollars for case management costs, medical bill audit fees, rehabilitation benefits, nurse case worker fees, and other similar fees. They also incur other expenses in conjunction with the handling and adjusting of workers’ compensation claims. Workers’ compensation carriers typically assert, of course, that, they are entitled to reimbursement for such expenditures when it recovers its workers’ compensation lien. Injured workers and their attorneys disagree.

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