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Kahler v. Kansas Death Penalty Case Could Have Ramifications in SD

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The South Dakota Legislature has so far rejected proposals to ban death sentences for people with serious mental illnesses. (worldcoalitionagainstthedeathpenalty.org)
The South Dakota Legislature has so far rejected proposals to ban death sentences for people with serious mental illnesses. (worldcoalitionagainstthedeathpenalty.org)
 By Roz Brown - Producer, Contact
October 17, 2019

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – A pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling could impact a South Dakota case that shocked the Sioux Falls community in 2016.

This month, the high court justices heard arguments in Kahler v. Kansas, a case that could determine the constitutionality of the insanity defense.

South Dakota lawmakers have considered but rejected legislation to exempt people with mental illness from the death penalty.

Aya Gruber, a professor of criminal law at the University of Colorado, says the Supreme Court has so far relied on a "shock to the conscience" doctrine as grounds for a death sentence.

"Is it possible that a state can go ahead and punish a severely mentally ill person, the same way that they would punish a completely sane person?” Gruber questions. “Or would that be such a grossly disproportionate punishment that it would shock the conscience?"

A Sioux Falls man eligible for the death penalty awaits trial. In 2016, 24-year-old Heath Otto was charged with killing his mother and nephew, and two counts of first-degree murder make him eligible for the death penalty. His defense lawyers later hired experts who diagnosed Otto with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.

In the case before the Supreme Court, James Kahler was convicted and the death sentence was recommended for fatally shooting his ex-wife, her mother and his two daughters. He appealed, claiming his constitutional rights were violated by not being allowed to present an insanity defense.

Gruber notes that insanity is argued in very few cases.

"And of those cases, they're very rarely successful,” she states. “So, this is not like a defense that people are using all the time – this is a rarely used, rarely successful defense."

In death penalty cases, South Dakota currently relies on the M'Naghten Rule, meaning the burden of proof for insanity is on the defendant.

Capital punishment cases typically cost 10 times more than a first-degree murder case, or an average of $1 million more per case than life imprisonment.

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