intellectual disabilities U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court invalidates Texas’s standards on intellectual disabilities in death penalty cases

Today, March 28, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Texas must use current medical standards for determining whether a person is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution.  The case – Moore v. Texas – involves Bobby James Moore, who 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.

According to the Texas Tribune, “In 2014, a Texas state court used current medical standards, which looks for deficits in intellectual and adaptive functioning that began as a child, 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 U.S. Supreme Court found that “the CCA’s decision does not comport with the Eighth Amendment and this Court’s precedents.”

Here’s a statement from Moore’s attorney:

Statement from Attorney for Petitioner Moore in Response to Today’s 5-3 U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Moore v. Texas
March 28, 2017

“Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that all persons with intellectual disability are exempt from execution, and that current medical standards must be used to determine whether a person is intellectually disabled. The Supreme Court has made clear that no state may assess intellectual disability in a manner that would allow for the execution of someone who has intellectual disability under current medical standards.  The Supreme Court has sensibly directed Texas courts to be informed by the medical community’s current diagnostic framework before imposing our society’s gravest sentence,” said Cliff Sloan, counsel of record for Mr. Moore and partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, can be accessed here:


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 same community now regards as out of date because it does not focus enough on clinical evaluations of each individual.

In the Court’s majority opinion in Moore, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes: “…the several factors Briseno set out as indicators of intellectual disability are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source.  Not aligned with the medical community’s information, and drawing no strength from our precedent, the Briseno factors ‘creat[e] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.’”

Since 2002, Texas has removed at least 15 men from death row due to evidence of intellectual disabilities. The state has continued to sentence to death and execute people who may in fact have intellectual disabilities, however.

Read more about today’s decision from these media outlets:

Texas Tribune:

USA Today:

New York Times:

A piece from the Houston Chronicle explores what might come next in Moore’s case: