Death penalty returns to the Supreme Court

Pillars and facade of US Supreme Court building
Supreme Court Considers Death Penalty Case

For the third time in four years, the Supreme Court will review a case concerning the constitutionality of the death penalty in regard to people with intellectual disabilities.

Bobby James Moore was convicted of murdering an employee at a Texas grocery store in 1980. Moore, who has spent the past 15 years in solitary confinement, has been found in tests to have an IQ ranging from a high of 78 to as low as 64. Moore failed nearly every year of grade school and dropped out in the 9th grade.

A habeas court and the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals came to different rulings as to whether Moore can be executed under the standard issued in the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which found that the Eighth Amendment bars states from sentencing people with intellectual disabilities to death.

Due to the lack of guidance in Atkins, states have since applied a range of standards for measuring intellectual disability. In the 2014 case Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s rigid use of a 70-IQ cutoff for making death penalty determinations, finding that states must consider both the individual’s intellectual and adaptive functioning.

In Moore’s case, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals declined to follow this guidance, finding that it was bound by a 1992 standard established by the court and that it was the obligation of the State’s legislature, not the judiciary, to “implement the Atkins mandate,” according to the petition for the writ of certiorari [PDF]. Using this seven-factor test, the Court only considered Moore’s two higher IQ tests and ruled that the state could execute him.

“In a startling decision, the CCA rejected the habeas court’s determination, concluding that the court “erred by…employing the definition of intellectual disability presently used,” the petition states. “It held instead that an outdated, superseded twenty-three-year-old definition of intellectual disability governed the constitutional inquiry and that Moore was not intellectually disabled under that standard.

“The CCA’s ruling sharply conflicts with this Court’s decision in Atkins and Hall, which emphasized that it is the duty of the judiciary to enforce the Eighth Amendment by relying on current medical standards when conducting an intellectual-disability inquiry.”