Insanity in the State of Idaho
BY MARC W. PEARCE, JD, PHD, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA–LINCOLN, AND
LORI J. BUTTS, JD, PHD, CLINICAL & FORENSIC INSTITUTE INC.
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In 1982, the Idaho Legislature repealed Idaho’s insanity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.
“Judicial Notebook” is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the
Psychological Study of Social Issues).