The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Texas death row inmate Tuesday, ruling that the state's standard for measuring intellectual disability in cases of capital punishment were outdated and non-medical.
In the court's opinion
, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said the state should hold capital punishment cases to the same strict scientific standards as any other case. "Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake," she wrote.
The court's decision voids the most recent ruling on death row inmate Bobby Moore's case
and punts it back down to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
In 1980, Moore was convicted of capital murder for killing a man in a botched convenience store robbery, after which he was sentenced to death. In 2002, however, the Supreme Court ruled that executing the intellectually disabled was unconstitutional because it violated the Eight Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." The court, however, left the states in charge of deciding how to determine when someone was too intellectually disabled to execute.
And in Texas, that meant both avoiding modern clinical research and basing the state's definition on straight-up fiction.
Consider how in this 2004 ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Judge Cathy Cochran references Lennie, the mentally disabled oaf-like character from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
“Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt," she wrote in Ex parte Briseno
, referring to capital punishment. With the unusual anecdote, she determined a person could only be deemed intellectually disabled if they had shown signs of poor "adaptive functioning" since childhood. These signs, used to measure disability in capital punishment, were dubbed "Briseno factors." Steinbeck's family would later protest his work being used to justify the execution of intellectually disabled people.
In Moore's 2014 appeal to the CCA, family members testified that at the age of 13, he could not comprehend the days of the week, tell time, or understand that subtraction is the opposite of addition. By 14, Moore was kicked out of his childhood home for failing every subject in high school and began living on the streets. Despite getting food poisoning twice, his meals were mostly scavenged from trash cans.
The court, however, leaned on the Briseno factors, and decided that Moore had shown adaptive intellect by successfully living on the streets, mowing lawns, and playing pool for money. Their only medical reference came from a 20-year-old manual by the American Association on Mental Retardation. Moore's lawyers eventually appealed to the Supreme Court.
In the Thursday ruling, Ginsberg writes that the Briseno factors are "not aligned with the medical community’s information" and “creat[e] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." The decision bans the state from using the Briseno factors in any future cases.
In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed that the Briseno factors should be thrown out, but also argued that the CCA correctly assessed Moore's intellectual disabilities.
This decision is the second Supreme Court ruling favoring a Texas death row inmate