On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court will hold oral argument in Moore v. Texas, a case that addresses Texas’s unscientific standard for determining whether a person is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. Moore v. Texas asks the Court to decide if it is unconstitutional for Texas “to prohibit the use of current medical standards on intellectual disability, and require the use of outdated medical standards, in determining whether an individual may be executed.”
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.
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 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.
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intellectual disabilities from the professional medical community — a standard that the same community now regards as out of date, because it does not focus enough on clinical evaluations of each individual.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 15 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.
A number of legal experts and disability rights advocates have published opinion editorials addressing Moore’s case:
“Rein in Texas on executing the intellectually disabled”: Washington Post (Op-ed) by Harvard Law Professor Carol Steiker and University of Texas Law Professor Jordan Steiker
“Texas Evaluates Intellectual Disability in Death Penalty Cases Using a Global-Outlier Standard”: ACSBlog Op-Ed by Georgetown Global Heath Law Professor Lawrence Gostin
“Texas’ Standard of Intellectual Disability Is Horrific”: Time Op-Ed by Special Olympics Chair Tim Shriver
This is the second Texas death penalty case the Justices will consider this term. On October 5, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument describing racial bias in the death penalty case of Duane Buck.