U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Texas death penalty case involving intellectual disabilities

Today the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two Texas death penalty cases: one involving egregious racial bias (Buck v. Stephens) and the other addressing our state’s unscientific and outdated process for assessing intellectual disabilities in capital cases (Moore v. Texas).

Bobby James Moore was convicted of killing a grocery story employee during a bungled robbery in Houston in 1980. He was 20 years old at the time of his conviction. The trial took place less than three months after the crime. Moore has faced two serious execution dates in his 35 years on death row.

Moore v. Texas raises the question of whether modern standards should be used in determining whether he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the application of the death penalty to persons with intellectual disabilities in 2002 (Atkins v. Virginia), the Texas Legislature still has not enacted statutory provisions governing the standards and procedures to be followed in these cases. In Atkins, the Court left it to each state to set forth criteria for determining whether an individual is intellectually disabled.  As a result, in 2004, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) determined its own, unscientific standards, known as Briseño factors, which were based in part on the character of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Moore claims that the CCA is using outdated medical standards in evaluating whether he is eligible to be executed. He argues that the Atkins decision in 2002 and another Supreme Court decision 2014, Hall v. Florida, stress the need for states to rely on modern diagnostic standards, not simple IQ test scores.

According to SCOTUS blog, in developing the Briseño factors, the state’s highest criminal court relied upon a 1992 definition of intellectual disabilities from the professional medical community — a standard that the same community now regards as out of date, because it does not focus enough on clinical evaluations of each individual.

Since 2002, Texas has removed at least 14 men from death row due to evidence of intellectual disabilities. The state continues to sentence to death and execute people who may in fact have intellectual disabilities, however.

Learn more about Moore’s case in this commentary from Anna Arceneaux, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider another issue raised in Moore’s appeal – whether his execution after 35 years on death row, including 15 years in solitary confinement, would inflect “needless pain and suffering in violation” of the Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Here’s more coverage of the two Texas death penalty cases granted cert by the Supreme Court:

Buzzfeed: https://www.buzzfeed.com/chrisgeidner/supreme-court-to-hear-cases-challenging-two-texas-death-sent?utm_term=.yh1o0R5qW#.iiqJlP65A

The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/law/2016/jun/06/supreme-court-appeal-texas-death-row-inmates

SCOTUS blog: http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/06/court-reopens-race-and-death-penalty-issues/

Austin American-Statesman: http://www.statesman.com/news/news/us-supreme-court-to-review-2-texas-death-penalty-c/nrbK4/