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In a 5-3 decision March 28,2017, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the methods that Texas has been using to gauge whether a defendant’s intellectual ability should spare them the death penalty.

Supreme Court Rejects Intellectual Disability Test Methods in Texas Death Penalty Cases

In a 5-3 decision March 28, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the methods that Texas has been using to gauge whether a defendant’s intellectual ability should spare them the death penalty.

The appeal was for Bobby James Moore, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1980 for fatally shooting an elderly Houston supermarket clerk during a botched robbery. Twenty years old at the time, Moore spent 19 years on Death Row before winning a new trial, due to ineffective assistance of counsel. But on retrial in 2001, he was again convicted and given a death sentence.

In 2014, Moore’s lawyers sought to persuade a state court he was intellectually disabled to a degree that made sentencing him to death unconstitutional. That court agreed, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected its recommendation, finding Moore was not severely impaired enough to be exempt from the death penalty.

On appeal, Moore’s lawyers challenged the state appeals court’s reading of constitution law. The leading federal case, Atkins v. Virginia, set down a basic rule in 2002: executing mentally disabled convicts violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Atkins didn’t set standards on how states should determine mental disability in capital cases, however.

In 2014, in Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court rejected that state’s use of an IQ score of 70 as precluding mental disability, saying state determinations must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” So the central issue the Supreme Court faced in Moore v. Texas was whether the way Texas made that determination in Moore’s case squared with the high court’s earlier cases.

The majority opinion, from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, found it did not. The court which had recommended exempting Moore from the death penalty, it noted, used a generally accepted test, consistent with modern diagnostic standards, with three core parts – mental functioning defects, evidenced by such things as an IQ of roughly 70; adaptive deficits, such as inability to learn basic skills or change behavior to fit changed circumstances; and the onset of such deficits before the age of majority.

Ginsburg cited evidence the first court had found about Moore, a ninth-grade dropout who by age 13 could barely read, write, or even tell time or understand common measurement units. In contrast, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals relied on state case law, which imposed added requirements, based on a 1992 psychology manual no longer accepted by most experts, and added seven “evidence factors” of its own devising, such as whether those who knew the individual treated him or her as mentally disabled. It also faulted the Texas criminal appeals court for relying on IQ scores Moore had received without considering those tests’ margins of error.

While the Court’s earlier decisions allow states leeway in making mental disability determinations, the majority vacated Moore’s death sentence, based on the state’s use of outdated medical standards and other factors lacking scientific basis. A dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts, with Justices Alito and Thomas, would have accepted the state’s reliance on an IQ score of 74 for Moore, and complained the majority opinion gave states insufficient guidance on how to determine mental disability.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at and

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook., Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts. He is currently a law student at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where he is a Criminal Law Association and Students Against Mass Incarceration board member, and a research editor for the Social Justice Law Review. Learn more about him at Federal Prison Consultants.

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