US Supreme Court to Texas: No More Using Junk Science to Execute the Intellectually Disabled

As I mentioned on my Facebook page, my Google+ page, and my Twitter account, yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court issued a big opinion dealing with Texas criminal cases. In Moore v. Texas, the Supreme Court told Texas it could no longer use junk science to execute defendants with intellectual disability. 

A Little Background

It's unconstitutional to execute people who are intellectually disabled. Unlike insanity, intellectual disability isn't a defense; the Supreme Court has, however, said violates the 8th Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishment to execute people with intellectual disability. Until now the Supreme Court has allowed the states incredibly wide latitude to define intellectual disability for themselves. With the Moore opinion, the Supreme Court reigned in that latitude a little. 

Moore v. Texas

Bobby James Moore was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting a supermarket employee during a 1980 robbery. But Moore argued that he was exempt from execution because he was intellectually disabled – for example, he failed first grade twice, still did not grasp basic principles like telling time at the age of 13, and had suffered a “debilitating” injury when he was hit in the head with a chain and a brick during the battle over integrating public schools.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – the state’s court of last resort for criminal cases – rejected Moore’s challenge to his death sentence. It relied on its 2004 decision in another case, Ex parte Briseno, involving an inmate’s intellectual disability. Briseno used a set of 1992 standards for evaluating intellectual disability, along with several “evidentiary factors” that take into account, among other things, whether the people who knew the inmate best when he was growing up regarded him as intellectually disabled.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the majority opinion (the case split narrowly along familiar lines 5-3; with Scalia or his soon to be conservative replacement on the court it certainly would've been 5-4). Ginsberg's opinion explained that while the states have the primary responsibility to determine how to interpret the bar against executing those with intellectual disability, the states don't get free rein. Although states do not have to follow every detail of the most recent medical guide on intellectual disabilities, they cannot disregard the standards in those guides either.

In Moore's case and others like it, Texas has not considered current clinical standards when evaluating how well Moore could handle the demands of everyday life, which is a key factor in determining whether someone is intellectually disabled. The Texas courts make the problem even worse, the justices reasoned, when they looked to the “evidentiary factors” outlined in the Briseno case. Those factors were essentially invented by the Texas court, without any basis in either medicine or law; indeed, even Texas itself does not use them to determine whether someone is intellectually disabled in other contexts. Instead, the court stressed, the factors rely on inaccurate stereotypes of the intellectually disabled - some of them (and I'm neither kidding or making this up here) based on the fictional literary character Lennie from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." That's right boys and girls, Texas has decide who's intellectually disabled and who's not, not based on science, but based on a fictional character in a book which plays on people's uneducated and uninformed stereotypes of people with intellectual disability.

This is, IMHO, the right decision. I hope it's a sign that the jurisprudence on the 8th Amendment is pointing towards the abolition of the death penalty altogether in my lifetime, if not the very near future. 

Big credit to the wonderful SCOTUSBlog for their analysis on this case.