Supreme Court Orders Review in Alabama Death Penalty Case


The United States Supreme Court this morning granted Alabama death row inmate Taurus Carroll’s petition for certiorari, vacated the state court’s judgment, and sent the case back to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for further review in light of the Court’s recent decision in Moore v. Texas.

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. Twice in recent years, the Court has found that states failed to adequately enforce Atkins.

In 2014, the Court struck down a Florida law requiring proof of an IQ score below 70 for a person to be considered intellectually disabled. In March, the Court held in Moore v. Texas that Texas’s reliance on an outdated, unscientific standard to decide whether a person facing the death penalty is intellectually disabled violated the Eighth Amendment.

In Mr. Carroll’s case, the state court imposed a strict IQ cutoff of 70, concluding that Mr. Carroll is not shielded from the death penalty because he has an IQ score of 71. Like in Moore, the state courts refused to apply modern medical standards, including the five-point standard error of measurement and the Flynn effect, that place Mr. Carroll’s IQ score squarely within the range of intellectual disability.

The Alabama courts also mirrored the errors committed by the Texas courts in Moore by focusing only on Mr. Carroll’s perceived “adaptive strengths” without recognizing that current medical protocols require an evaluation of adaptive deficits. 

Taurus Carroll was thrown over a balcony as a child and landed on his head. He failed the first and second grades twice each, and teachers reported he just could not understand basic concepts or retain information. He was unable to provide for basic needs, like cooking a meal, and was afraid to try driving because he did not know what the traffic signs meant. He scored in the lowest percentile on tests of adaptive functioning and learning ability.

Yet the state court concluded that because Mr. Carroll was able to make biscuits in the prison kitchen, could “immediately recall a color, object and number,” and knew the “day of the week,” he was not intellectually disabled.

Because, just like in Moore, the Alabama courts refused to apply updated, scientific standards to determine whether Mr. Carroll is intellectually disabled, his attorneys argued that Mr. Carroll is entitled to relief. The Court agreed, vacating the Court of Criminal Appeals’ judgment and remanding for reconsideration under Moore.

This is the second time in as many years that the Supreme Court has reversed the Alabama state courts because their determination of when a person’s intellectual disability should preclude them from being executed failed to meet constitutional standards. In Anthony Lane’s case, the state courts rejected uncontested expert testimony and other evidence that satisfied the Supreme Court’s definition of intellectual disability. EJI argued that the Alabama courts did not consider the proper professional and legal definitions of intellectual disability in Mr. Lane’s case; the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the state court decisions in Lane v. Alabama.

The Supreme Court returned Taurus Carroll’s case to Alabama for further review in light of Moore v. Texas.