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Justices decline to consider whether Constitution requires insanity defense

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider whether 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 has long recognized that criminal punishment is not appropriate for those who, by reason of insanity, cannot tell right from wrong,” wrote Justice Stephen G. 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.

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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 W. Hinckley Jr.’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 L. Fisher, told the court that the “moral integrity of the criminal law has depended, in part, on the insanity defense.”

Punishment is traditionally justified on the basis of an individual consciously choosing evil over good, Fisher wrote. “Laws such as Idaho’s abandon that basic tenet,” he said.

Fisher contends that Idaho’s law violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process of law, as well as the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

While the Supreme Court has approved states that limited the use of the insanity plea, it has never taken up the question of whether there is a constitutional right to the defense.

Breyer said Idaho’s law allows the conviction of an individual who “knew what he was doing, but had no capacity to understand that it was wrong,” and the justices should have decided whether that violates his right to due process.

The case is Delling v. Idaho .

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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