Supreme Court Reverses Death Sentence for Texas Man with Intellectual Disability


The United States Supreme Court summarily reversed Bobby James Moore’s death sentence last week after finding that he is intellectually disabled.

This is the second time the Court has ruled in Mr. Moore’s favor. In 2017, the Court held that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals violated the Eighth Amendment when it relied on an outdated, unscientific standard to decide that Mr. Moore was not intellectually disabled.

In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposing the death penalty on people with intellectual disability, but left it to the states to determine who is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

The Court found in 2017 that Texas’s definition “[b]y design and in operation, . . . creat[es] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” It 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,” and sent Mr. Moore’s case back for the state court to re-evaluate using the proper analysis.

On remand, however, the Texas court reached the same conclusion. The Supreme Court “found in its opinion too many instances in which, with small variations, it repeats the analysis we previously found wanting.”

Specifically, the Court wrote that the state court “again relied less upon the adaptive deficits . . . than upon Moore’s apparent adaptive strengths.” The state court emphasized Mr. Moore’s ability to read and write based in part on papers he filed in court but failed to determine whether Mr. Moore actually wrote the papers on his own.

The state court also wrongly relied on “adaptive improvements made in prison,” such as Mr. Moore’s ability to get items from the prison commissary. “The length and detail of the court’s discussion on these points is difficult to square with our caution against relying on prison-based development,” the Court wrote.

The Court concluded that the Texas court improperly relied on “lay stereotypes of the intellectually disabled,” and that too much of its analysis “too closely resembles what we previously found improper.”

The Court’s holding that Mr. Moore is a person with intellectual disability means he cannot be executed.