Justices Reject Texas Approach on Intellectual Disability and Death Penalty

By Mark Walsh — March 29, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Texas must adopt a broader standard for keeping convicts with intellectual disabilities from receiving the death penalty, in a case in which the school record of the defendant was a prominent factor.

The justices held 5-3 that the state’s highest court for criminal matters used outdated medical standards in evaluating whether a now 57-year-old man had an intellectual disability that would keep him from being executed under the Supreme Court’s recent line of decisions in that area.

“Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority in Moore v. Texas (Case No. 15-797).

Those other contexts include “the standards the state uses to assess students for intellectual disabilities,” Ginsburg said. “And even within Texas’ criminal-justice system, the state requires the intellectual-disability diagnoses of juveniles to be based on the latest edition of the DSM.”

The reference is to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the latest edition of which was published in 2013 and is known as the DSM-5.

That volume was among the authorities consulted by a lower Texas court when it ruled in 2015 that Bobby James Moore should have his death penalty reduced to a life sentence or he should be granted a new trial on intellectual disability.

Moore was 20 in 1980 when he participated with two others in a bungled robbery of a Houston market. Moore’s gun discharged and killed one of the store clerks. He was sentenced to death.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of those with intellectual disabilities, Moore receive a state habeas hearing that explored whether he had such a disability.

Evidence revealed that Moore had profound mental and social difficulties as a youth, such as an inability to tell time or to understand the seasons of the year. Moore showed a lack of comprehension of fundamental skills possessed by his peers and received failing grades, court papers say, but school officials nevertheless gave him social promotions.

“Often, he was separated from the rest of the class and told to draw pictures,” Ginsburg wrote. “Moore’s father, teachers, and peers called him ‘stupid’ for his slow reading and speech.”

(She didn’t mention another fact that appeared in court papers: that Moore, at age 12 in 1971, had received a debilitating head injury when he was hit by a brick and suffered a possible traumatic brain injury during a fracas that was part of battles to integrate Houston’s school system.)

Moore dropped out of school after failing every subject in 9th grade.

A state trial judge, relying on the DSM-5 and recent standards of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, concluded that Moore had an intellectual disability and could not be executed.

In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the trial judge and reinstated Moore’s death penalty. The court relied on a 1992 standard of the AAIDD as well as a legal standard it developed itself in the wake of the Atkins decision.

In that 2004 decision, Ex parte Briseno, the Texas high court said that prevailing mental health standards did not bind the state’s courts. That ruling has drawn criticism over the years for its reference to the intellectually challenged character Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

In Moore’s case, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected some of the defendant’s IQ scores and disregarded the lower end of the standard error of measurement in two others, concluding that Moore’s scores of 74 and 78 ranked above the range of intellectual disability.

Also, the trial court had put too much emphasis on Moore’s “adaptive deficits,” the state high court held, which could be explained by abuse-filled childhood, undiagnosed learning disorders, multiple elementary-school transfers, racially motivated harassment and violence at school, and a history of academic failure, drug abuse, and absenteeism instead of intellectual disability.

In a March 28 opinion joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, Ginsburg found two key faults with the Texas high court’s decision.

First, she said that the Texas court’s conclusion that Moore’s IQ scores did not show he had an intellectually disability could not be squared with the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Hall v. Florida that a state may not refuse to consider other evidence of such a disability when a defendant has an IQ score above 70, and that courts must weigh the standard error of measurement on such tests.

Second, Ginsburg wrote that the Texas court’s “consideration of Moore’s adaptive functioning ... deviated from prevailing clinical standards and from the older clinical standards the court claimed to apply.”

She said that while the Texas court had concluded Moore’s poor school record and childhood traumas had detracted from a conclusion that his adaptive deficits were related to intellectual disability, “those traumatic experiences, however, count in the medical community as ‘risk factors’ for intellectual disability. Clinicians rely on such factors as cause to explore the prospect of intellectual disability further, not to counter the case for a disability.”

The court’s ruling vacates the Texas high court’s decision and sends it back to that court for further proceedings.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Roberts said he agreed with the majority that the Texas high court’s Briseno factors were an inappropriate way to enforce the guarantee of the Atkins decision. But he said the Court of Criminal Appeals had made an independent judgment that Moore did not have an intellectual disability.

The majority “crafts a constitutional holding based solely on what it deems to be medical consensus about intellectual disability,” Roberts said. “But clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.