For years Texas has had a different way of deciding how intellectual disability is defined than much of the rest of the country in death row cases.
That definition has come under critical scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case concerning a death row inmate who is challenging his sentence.
At the end of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case of Bobby Moore. The inmate’s intellect is clearly an issue in the case but there is disagreement between the state and his defense team about whether his intellectual disability is significant enough to avoid capital punishment.
The New York Times reported on the deliberations of the high court. Scott A. Keller, the Texas solicitor general, said the key 2002 Supreme Court decision of Atkins v. Virginia bars the execution of people who are intellectually disabled but leaves it to the individual states to draw up their own standards about who qualifies.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he feared such an interpretation allows states to screen out defendants and deny them relief.
Moore has languished on Texas’ death row since 1980. He was convicted of the fatal stabbing of a 72-year-old Houston supermarket clerk during a robbery.
His lawyers say there is no doubt that he suffers from an intellectual disability. At the age of 13, he was unable to understand the days of the week, the seasons, and the months of the year, they say.
They claim Texas’ standards of gauging intellectual disability are woefully outdated.
What Atkins v. Virginia Says About Intellectual Disability
In the 2002 case, the U.S. Supreme Court of Atkins v. Virginia set parameters on the execution of people with intellectual disabilities.
The justices stated.
“Those mentally retarded persons who meet the law’s requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried and punished when they commit crimes. Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct. Moreover, their impairments can jeopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings against mentally retarded defendants.”
The Supreme Court appeared skeptical of the way Texas decides who must be spared the death penalty on account of intellectual disability, with several justices indicating that the state’s standards were either too strict or too arbitrary.
Texas executes more people than any other state. In the past, the state has ignored some very powerful arguments from defendants and their legal representatives. Over the last 12 months, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted a series of executions.