With three judges dissenting, the Supreme Court declined a chance November 26 to review a case challenging the constitutionality of the state of Idaho’s decision to eliminate the insanity ’defense in its court system.
After passing up a chance to make a definitive ruling on the issue in an insanity defense case in 2006, some commentators believed the Supreme Court would revisit the issue. However, the Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari without any comment.
Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor, writing in dissent, argued that Idaho’s rejection of the insanity defense might violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
“The law has long recognized that criminal punishment is not appropriate for those who cannot tell right from wrong,” they wrote in dissent.
The Supreme Court’s rules require the approval of four justices to grant certiorari to hear a case.
John Joseph Dwelling believed in 2007 that he was a “type of Jesus,” whose friends “were taking his energy.” Convinced that he had to kill his friends in order to prevent further harm, Dwelling, who has paranoid schizophrenia, set out on a carefully planned 6,500 mile trip to engage in what he believed was self defense.
The Idaho resident traveled to Tuscon, Ariz., where he shot and wounded a high school classmate. He then murdered a childhood friend in Moscow, Id., followed by the murder of another friend in Boise, Id., whom he met playing online video games.
Dwelling confessed to the murder. The trial court found that he met the traditional test of the insanity defense: that he was “unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.” However, since Idaho has no insanity defense , Dwelling was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
At one time every state in the nation had an insanity defense. However, five states have abolished their insanity defense since 1981, when national outraged ensued in reaction to John W. Hinckley Jr.’s acquittal under the insanity defense after attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
Dwelling’s attorneys argued that Idaho’s lack of an insanity defense constituted a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, as well as the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
“The Due Process Clause prohibits any imposition of criminal liability that offends [a] principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,’” wrote Stanford Law professor Jeffrey Fischer, who represented Dwelling, in his petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court.
In the five states which abolished their death penalty, four of the state’s supreme courts upheld the decision, while the Nevada Supreme Court struck down the state’s decision in 2001 on both Fourteenth and Eighth Amendment grounds.
The Idaho Supreme Court upheld the life sentence for Dwelling. In noting the undisputed fact that Dwelling had a clear intention to engage in his killing spree, the court ruled that Dwelling’s actions met all of the element of the state’s murder statute and thus affirmed the ruling.
For Dwelling’s lawyer, this decision misses the point since the point of the insanity defense is to protect those whose intentions cannot be judged since they did not understand the rightness or wrongness of their actions.
Or put another way, that the point of the insanity defense is meant to protect people with severe mental illnesses who cannot be judged under the reasonable person standard that governs the element of intent in the criminal law.
“For centuries, the moral integrity of the criminal law has depended, in part, on the insanity defense,” Fischer wrote in the petition for certiorari. “As Justice Jackson, a former United States Attorney General, explained for this Court: Criminal punishment has traditionally been justified based on a breach of the ‘duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil.’ Law such as Idaho’s abandon that basic tenet.”