The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas death row inmate Bobby James Moore should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
The U.S. Supreme Court did the right thing Tuesday when it rejected Texas’ absurd approach to determining whether a convicted murderer is too intellectually disabled to be executed. Too bad the court still supports the underlying absurdity, the death penalty itself.
The case, Moore vs. Texas, centers on Bobby James Moore, who was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1980 robbery-murder of a supermarket employee. Moore’s lawyers argued that his intellectual disability makes him ineligible for the death penalty under the court’s 2002 Atkins vs. Virginia decision, which found that executing the intellectually disabled violated the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. But that decision left it up to states to determine the threshold for eligibility.
That didn’t go well. Florida set a hard line at an IQ score of 70, even though IQ tests have a margin of error and the contemporary medical standard for assessing intellectual disability involves more than IQ tests.
Condemned inmate Freddie Lee Hall, whose IQ scores were within that margin of error, challenged his death sentence. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled in Hall vs. Florida (2014) that an IQ level of 70 alone was insufficient to determine eligibility for execution and that “adaptive functioning” — the ability to sufficiently understand the world to navigate it — must be considered, too. But again, the court left it up to the states to define who would be exempted “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.”
Rather vague, that, and Tuesday’s decision didn’t offer much clarity, other than to tell Texas that the way it was making such decisions was wrong.
Moore’s involvement in the killing isn’t at issue, and his disabilities are indisputable. He twice failed first grade and still could not understand the concept of telling time at age 13. He also suffered a severe brain injury when he was struck in the head with a brick and a chain during a violent clash over school integration (Moore, who is African American, was trying to board a school bus).
Further, Moore’s father kicked him out of the house when he was 14 because of his poor school performance, and Moore quit school altogether when he flunked every class in his freshman year of high school. Soon after, he was using drugs and engaging in petty crimes. The robbery in which the killing occurred was an effort by Moore and two friends to come up with cash for a car payment.
Texas decided that those disabilities weren’t bad enough to save Moore, based on its criteria. But those are rooted in outdated clinical definitions established in 1992, and the “Briseño factors,” a set of seven determinations the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals came up with to measure how the average Texan would assess someone’s intellectual capacity.
As The Times’ editorial board said last year in urging the Supreme Court to throw out Texas’ procedure, the Texas court “developed the standards to reflect its view that not everyone who is diagnosed as intellectually disabled for ‘clinical’ purposes necessarily deserves to be spared from execution. But defining intellectual disability should be based on scientific and medical standards, and it’s preposterous that Texas determines life or death based in part on what an average person might think.”
In Tuesday’s ruling written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court told Texas that while states have leeway in determining eligibility for death, the process must be rooted in reality. And Texas’ was not.
“That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus,” Ginsburg wrote. “Moreover, the several factors Briseno set out as indicators of intellectual disability are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source. Not aligned with the medical community’s information, and drawing no strength from our precedent, the Briseno factors “creat[e] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed. … Accordingly, they may not be used, as the CCA used them, to restrict qualification of an individual as intellectually disabled.”
Murder is a heartless crime, robbing the victims of life and thrusting their families and friends into unfathomable depths of grief, anger, and loss. They are entitled to those emotions, but it is not in society’s best interest to execute those found guilty.
Beyond the basic immorality of killing, and the unreliability of the criminal justice system, executions are the ultimate government intrusion. They neither deter future crimes and only occur after “unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose,” as Justice Steven J. Breyer wrote in questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment.
It’s bad enough that we still cling to this medieval practice, and I hope the Supreme Court sooner rather than later follows Breyer’s skepticism and ends it. But at least now Texas can’t go even deeper in the realm of the cruel and execute people who don’t understand what is happening to them, or why.
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