Supreme Court Reverses Death Sentence for Intellectually Disabled Man in TexasMarch 30, 2017

The United States Supreme Court ruled this week in favor of Texas death row inmate Bobby Moore, holding that the state court's reliance on an outdated, unscientific standard to decide that Mr. Moore is not intellectually disabled violated the Eighth Amendment.

In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposing the death penalty on intellectually disabled people, but left it to the states to determine who is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty. Mr. Moore's lawyers argued that Texas does not adequately enforce Atkins because it shields from execution "only offenders who meet crude stereotypes about intellectual disability."

The Supreme Court agreed, finding in Moore v. Texas that the state's definition "[b]y design and in operation, . . . creat[es] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." The Court observed that Texas rejected medical and clinical standards and relied on stereotypes of the intellectually disabled in an effort to exclude persons with "mild" intellectual disability from the category of people whose execution is barred by the Constitution.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the Court that the Texas standard is "an invention of the [state court] untied to any acknowledged source," is "[n]ot aligned with the medical community's information, and draw[s] no strength from our precedent."  Accordingly, the Court ruled that the standard "may not be used . . . to restrict qualification of an individual as intellectually disabled."

Bobby Moore was convicted in the shooting death of a grocery store clerk during a failed robbery in 1980. Lawyers presented evidence of his intellectual disability, including that he failed first grade twice; likely suffered traumatic brain injury when he was hit in the head with a chain and a brick in fifth grade; and at 13, did not understand the days of the week, the months of the year, the seasons, how to tell time, the principle that subtraction is the opposite of addition, or standard units of measurement. The trial court found that Mr. Moore is intellectually disabled based on current medical standards, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) reversed, holding he did not meet the state's test.

The Supreme Court's decision underscores that states do not have unfettered discretion to define intellectual disability, a point it made in striking down Florida's standard. As the Court wrote:

"If the States were to have complete autonomy to define intellectual disability as they wished, . . . Atkins could become a nullity, and the Eighth Amendment's protection of human dignity would not become a reality." 

Texas leads the nation in executions, having put to death more than a third of the people executed nationwide over the past four decades. Experts estimate that Texas has executed 30 to 40 people with strong claims of intellectual disability, and a similar number of the more than 200 people currently facing execution in Texas likewise have strong evidence that they should be exempt from the death penalty.