Judicial Notebook

James Delling, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, became convinced that some of his friends were trying to destroy his brain. Acting on this delusion, Delling traveled to Tucson, Ariz., in 2007 and attempted to kill Jacob Thompson. He then shot and killed David Boss and Brad Morse in Idaho. After he was apprehended, Delling admitted to the shootings but claimed that he acted in self-defense. Authorities also discovered a list indicating that Delling was planning to kill four more people in his misguided effort to protect himself.

Delling was charged with two counts of second-degree murder in Idaho. Athough the insanity defense is not available in Idaho, a defendant is permitted to use evidence of mental illness to undermine the prosecution's proof that he was capable of forming the intent necessary to commit the charged crime, or mens rea. In other words, Delling could not argue that his schizophrenia prevented him from understanding that what he did was wrong, but he could seek acquittal on the ground that his schizophrenia prevented him from forming the deliberate intention to kill a person.

In 1982, the Idaho Legislature repealed Idaho's insanity defense statute and enacted a law that states that "mental condition shall not be a defense to any charge of criminal conduct," but the court may consider expert evidence on "any state of mind which is an element of the offense." Before his trial, Delling argued that the state's abolition of the insanity defense violated the right to due process. The trial court rejected this argument, and it sentenced Delling to life in prison. On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court concluded that Delling's due process rights were adequately protected because he could challenge the mens rea element of the offense and because the trial judge was required to consider Delling's mental condition before sentencing him. The court also affirmed Delling's life sentence, noting that although Delling lacked the ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct, Delling's mental illness also provides "a reason to give a considerable sentence."

On Nov. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Delling's case; thus, the insanity defense remains unavailable to criminal defendants in Idaho. It is noteworthy, however, that three dissenting justices believed that a hearing was warranted. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Stephen J. Breyer explained:

Idaho law would distinguish the following two cases. Case One: The defendant, due to insanity, believes that the victim is a wolf. He shoots and kills the victim. Case Two: The defendant, due to insanity, believes that a wolf, a supernatural figure, has ordered him to kill the victim. In Case One, the defendant does not know he has killed a human being, and his insanity negates a mental element necessary to commit the crime. In Case Two, the defendant has intentionally killed a victim whom he knows is a human being; he possesses the necessary mens rea. In both cases the defendant is unable, due to insanity, to appreciate the true quality of his act, and therefore unable to perceive that it is wrong. But in Idaho, the defendant in Case One could defend the charge by arguing that he lacked the mens rea, whereas the defendant in Case Two would not be able to raise a defense based on his mental illness. [Delling v. Idaho, No. 11-1515 (U.S. Nov. 26, 2012) (Breyer, J., dissenting)]

The Supreme Court's hypothetical cases demonstrate why a mens rea defense would not help Delling. Although his serious mental illness played a direct role in his crimes, Delling admitted that he intended to kill his victims and thereby conceded the mens rea element of the charges.

Delling's case is compelling given the trial court's finding that he could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct, which would satisfy a common legal test for insanity. Only Idaho, Montana, Kansas and Utah have abolished the insanity defense completely; thus, it is likely that if Delling had been charged in a different state, he would have been found legally insane. Because the Supreme Court passed on the case, states remain free to adopt a framework for addressing the relationship between mental illness and criminal responsibility that is at least as restrictive as Idaho's — and legal outcomes for people like Delling will vary widely across state lines.

"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).