The Dark Side Made Me Do It: Kylo Ren’s Insanity Defense

A once brilliant and gifted young man suddenly betrayed everything he held dear, developed a dark (possibly emo) alter ego, and now speaks to a melted helmet that once belonged to his grandfather.

Pretend you’re a criminal defense attorney who gets that sort of profile describing your newest client. I’d wager a fair number of galactic credits that you’d immediately start researching a possible insanity defense. By the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren had amassed a rap sheet taller than Chewbacca with K2-SO sitting on his shoulders. While it might be easy to cast him off as a ruthless murderer, his fall to the dark side raises questions about whether he was actually legally responsible for his crimes. Suppose Kylo Ren was ultimately put on trial—could he successfully mount an insanity defense around the dark side and its effects?

Having conversations with a burned up piece of your dead grandfather seems like it should be a decent qualifier for the insanity defense.

 Given the nature of Kylo Ren’s crimes, we’ll assume that he would be tried by a military court using the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). In addition to its criminal code, the UCMJ contains Rules for Court-Martial (RCM). The RCM dictate the entire court-martial process, from the initial investigation to post-trial and appellate matters. Those rules also set the limits for when a defendant can use the defense of lack of mental responsibility.

Court-martial defendants don’t have free rein to use any mental health problem under the sun as a defense. Under RCM 916(k) of the UCMJ, a lack of mental responsibility (more commonly known as the “insanity defense”) has strict limits. In order to use the affirmative defense, the accused must have been suffering from a severe mental disease or defect at the time of the offense.

Much like his grandfather, Kylo Ren likely suffers from a borderline personality disorder. Anakin Skywalker’s difficulty controlling his anger, impulsivity, unstableness, and his identity disturbance were among the factors that led French psychologist Dr. Eric Bui to conclude that he suffered from such a disorder. From angrily demolishing innocent control panels on the Finalizer to adopting a new personality (and an all-black wardrobe), or running a lightsaber through his poor dad, Kylo Ren exhibits many of the same symptoms. Kylo would therefore likely be diagnosed with a similar disorder.

Given its personnel issues, perhaps the First Order should divert a bit of its giant planet laser budget into an investment in one or two psychologists…

While it’s clear that Kylo is suffering from a mental disease, it’s not so clear that his problem qualifies as a severe defect under the law. Unfortunately, there is no bright line rule for what qualifies as “severe.” No military court has set an exact standard for what qualifies as severe. The jury instruction for mental responsibility found within the Military Judge’s Benchbook reflects the lack of clarity on the issue. It states, “[t]he term “severe mental disease or defect” can be no better defined in the law then by the use of the term itself. However, a severe mental disease or defect does not, in the legal sense, include an abnormality manifested only by…antisocial conduct or by nonpsychotic behavior disorders and personality disorders.”

Kylo’s borderline personality disorder may cause him serious issues, but he would face a tough battle establishing that it is a severe disorder. A better option might be to have his treating physicians explore whether the dark side manifested itself as a sort of psychosis, causing Kylo to lose touch with reality.

Even if Kylo Ren successfully argues that the dark side was a severe mental disease or defect, he would still face an uphill battle. Under the UCMJ, Kylo would bear the high burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence that he not only had a severe mental disease or defect, but that it rendered him unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts.

Unfortunately for Kylo, his own actions seem to suggest that he knew exactly what he was doing in many instances. Take his murder of Han, for example. Shortly before shish kebabing his dad, Kylo said that he was being torn apart. His words and initial hesitancy seemingly showed that Kylo was feeling genuine anguish over the choice that lay before him. It was also evidence that he had a firm grip on what he was doing and knew how wrong it was.

Kylo seemingly killed his father not because of a mental split from reality or some loss of control due to the dark side, but out of desperation to tap into the wellspring of power he saw in the dark side. Having just been shown up by Rey, his own powers had been called into question in front of Supreme Leader Snoke. As a result, he may have had a strong desire to increase his strength with the dark side to make up for that humiliation. Like his grandfather, his obsession with power may have led him down a dark path, but he was not totally out of control.

While those facts might all be great for Kylo’s continued career as Snoke’s crony, they would likely sink his chances at a successful insanity defense.

Ever the concerned dad, Han is right to look so surprised at how tough it is to mount an insanity defense.

Kylo shouldn’t feel too down in the dumps, though. After all, from 1990 to 2010, there were only roughly 7 not guilty by reason of insanity acquittals out of a total of 29,513 cases—a rate of about .02%. In the end, the dark side of the Force might be the pathway to many abilities…but successfully mounting an insanity defense with it probably isn’t one of them.

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Thomas Harper
Thomas is a Captain in the US Army serving on active duty as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer. During his time in the JAG Corps, he has served in a variety of positions, including as an Operational Law attorney advising on the law of war and rules of engagement in Afghanistan. He currently serves as a military defense counsel, representing accused soldiers at courts-martial and other proceedings. While he loves all things geek, he is a massive Star Wars fan, collector, and the reigning back-to-back Dragon Con Star Wars Super Fan trivia champion. His frequently favorable comments regarding the Empire and Dark Side are his own and do not reflect those of the DoD and Army. Follow his ramblings about the galaxy far far away on Twitter at @thomasLharper.