Supreme Court Needs to Clarify Determination of Intellectual Disability in Capital Cases, TCP Says

The Supreme Court should consider a case clarifying the standards for determining intellectual disability in death penalty sentences, The Constitution Project said in a friend-of-the-court brief filed late on January 18.  TCP is asking the Court to hear the case of Bobby James Moore v. Texas.

“The consensus diagnostic criteria for intellectual disability have changed in important ways over time, such that a refusal to consider up-to-date criteria will necessarily result in the execution of defendants who are plainly intellectually disabled under consensus standards,” TCP wrote in its brief, noting that many states now apply outdated standards in determining intellectual disability in capital cases, but different courts have different interpretations about what is allowed.

The Supreme Court decided in 2002 that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of persons with intellectual disability, a position it reaffirmed in 2014, but left the task of deciding who meets the standard to the states.

“The history of diagnosing intellectual disability is a history of refinements and improvements to produce more accurate and reliable diagnoses,” TCP wrote in its brief.  “The use of these modern standards will be a question of life or death in many cases—because there will be a number of individuals who might not meet the criteria for intellectual disability as expressed in certain now-outdated standards, but who do satisfy the accepted modern criteria,” it said.  The brief said Moore was clearly one such case.

Moore was convicted in the shooting death of James McCarble, 73, during a grocery store robbery, and sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in July, 1980.

In 2014, after a two-day evidentiary hearing, a Texas state court applied the current medical standards and determined Moore was intellectually disabled, and hence ineligible for execution.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the state court’s grant of relief on various grounds, including holding that the judge improperly relied on the current medical standard for assessing intellectual disability, instead of an older, outdated standard that had been applied by the appeals court in a decade-old decision.

Southern Center for Human Rights joined TCP in asking the Supreme Court to take the case.  The brief was prepared with generous pro bono assistance from Jones Day.



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