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Supreme Court Holds Texas May Not Use Outdated Standards to Determine Intellectual Disability in Death Penalty Cases

by Matt Clarke

In a 5-3 opinion handed down on March 28, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”) violated the Eighth Amendment and Supreme Court precedent when it relied upon its own previous opinion and superseded medical standards to conclude that a death row prisoner was not intellectually disabled and thus eligible to be executed.

Texas state prisoner Bobby James Moore was 20 years old when he killed a grocery store clerk during a botched robbery. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Subsequently, a state habeas court determined that Moore was intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty pursuant to Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), and Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986 (2014). In doing so, the habeas court relied upon current medical diagnostic standards, viz., the 11th edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities clinical manual (“AAIDD-11”) and the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The court recommended to the CCA that Moore’s request for relief be granted.

The CCA declined to follow the habeas court’s recommendations. It held that the habeas court erred by not using the standards adopted by the CCA in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004), which were based in part on the 9th edition of the American Association on Mental Retardation manual published in 1992 (a predecessor to the AAIDD-11).

Additionally, without citing any medical or judicial authority, the Briseno Court set forth seven evidentiary factors to be considered by a court in determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases. Some of the factors contradicted medical standards for diagnosis of intellectual disability and appeared to have been based on lay stereotypes. Relying upon its made-up factors and two IQ scores of 74 and 78, the CCA concluded that Moore was not intellectually disabled. Moore petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was granted.

The Supreme Court ruled that Moore’s IQ scores of slightly above 70 did not disqualify him from having an intellectual disability, due to the test’s recognized “standard error of measurement.” The CCA also erred when it overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths and used his academic failures and record of childhood abuse to detract from a determination that his intellectual and adaptive deficits were related.

The Supreme Court determined that the CCA’s seven Briseno factors amount to lay perceptions that create “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” They are an outlier compared to other states’ methods of adjudicating intellectual disability pleas and Texas’ own handling of intellectual disability in contexts not involving the death penalty.

The Court instructed that states have some flexibility, but not “unfettered discretion” in enforcing Atkins’ directive that the states are left with “the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce” the prohibition on executing the intellectually disabled. However, the determination must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” States may not rely on outdated medical standards.

Because the CCA failed to adequately inform itself of the “medical community’s diagnostic framework,” the Supreme Court vacated its decision and remanded to the CCA for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion.

“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,” said Moore’s attorney, Cliff Sloan, on the day the Court issued its decision. During oral arguments, he told the Court, “Texas is very extreme and stands alone” by using “lay stereotypes” of intellectual disability like that of the tragic character Lennie Small from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. See: Moore v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 1039 (2017).  

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Related legal case

Moore v. Texas



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