The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Texas death row inmate Tuesday, sending his case back to the appeals court and invalidating the state's current method of determining if a death-sentenced inmate is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Texas' method relies on decades-old medical standards and a controversial set of factors.
The high court's 5-3 ruling in the case of Bobby Moore, a 57-year-old man who has lived on death row for more than 36 years, said Texas’ refusal to use current medical standards and its reliance on nonclinical factors violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissenting.
As the court has previously instructed, "adjudications of intellectual disability should be ‘informed by the views of medical experts.’ That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus," Ginsburg wrote.
Moore was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in July 1980, three months after he walked into a Houston supermarket with two other men and fatally shot James McCarble, the 73-year-old clerk behind the counter, according to Texas' brief to the high court.
In 2014, a Texas state court used current medical standards to determine Moore was intellectually disabled and could not be executed. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overruled the decision, claiming the lower court erred by using those standards instead of the state’s test.
The test, commonly known as the Briseno standard, was established by the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2004, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the intellectually disabled was unconstitutional. The court defined the test using a medical definition from 1992 as well as several other factors to help courts determine adaptive functioning. The Court of Criminal Appeals claimed, based on those factors, that Moore doesn’t have the disability.
Included in those factors is a controversial reference to Lennie, a character from John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men.” The Briseno opinion written by the Court of Criminal Appeals said most citizens might agree a person like Lennie should be exempt from execution. The state has argued the reference was an “aside;” critics say it exemplifies the arbitrariness of defining intellectual disability in Texas.
Moore’s case was the third since 2002 that the high court considered the death penalty and the intellectually disabled. That year, justices ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional, but it left it up to the states to legally determine the condition. In 2014, the court weighed in on borderline cases, ruling that states can’t use an IQ below 70 as the sole way to define the disability.