Supreme Court overturns death penalty for man with intellectual disability

Washington D.C., Feb 19, 2019 / 03:29 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In a ruling released Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the death penalty sentence of a Texas inmate whom the court found to be intellectually disabled.

The Catholic Mobilizing Network applauded the court’s decision, saying it “parallels a growing consensus among the American public that the death penalty is falling out of favor.”

“It is encouraging to see that even in Texas, one of the last strongholds for capital punishment in the U.S., executions like this will no longer be tolerated,” CMN’s Executive Director, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy said in a Feb. 19 statement.

“Though Texas accounts for 13 of last year’s 25 executions, in the years since Bobby James Moore was sentenced to death, we have seen a growing number of TX District Attorneys pledging to seek the death penalty less frequently.”

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court found that “on the basis of the trial court record, Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability.”

Bobby James Moore had been convicted in 1980 – and again in 2001 on a retrial – of robbing a convenience store and killing an employee. He was given a death sentence.

A state habeas court, however, said that Moore met the clinical criteria for being intellectually disabled – which would exempt someone from execution under the Eighth Amendment, as the Supreme Court had ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002.

With Moore, the habeas court used the standard “three-prong” test to determine intellectual disability, which is part of the clinical consensus on the matter, the Supreme Court found.

This test looked for “intellectual functioning deficits,” or an IQ score of around 70 adjusted for error; “adaptive functioning deficits”; and whether these deficits began to show when the person was still a minor.

A Texas criminal appeals court, however, disregarded five of Moore’s seven IQ scores that factored into the habeas court’s ruling, keeping only scores of 74 and 78 that Moore received in 1989 and 1973, respectively, and “discounted the lower end of the standard-error range associated with those scores,” as the Supreme Court’s opinion noted.

The appeals court ruled that according to an earlier medical standard of intellectual disability – which was in place before Moore was convicted in his 2001 re-trial – as well as according to the state’s “Briseno factors” test, Moore was eligible for the death penalty.

The Briseno factors test is a standard used by Texas in addition to the three-pronged standard for disability. The test includes questions like whether someone is able to lie, and if their neighbors thought they were disabled as a child. Critics have insisted that these factors are non-clinical.

Critics also note that the Briseno factors are not used to determine one’s eligibility for other state programs like social services. They have been used to deem others in Texas fit for the death penalty, including in 2012 a man who scored a 61 on an IQ test.

Moore’s case was eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-3 decision in 2017, the Court overturned the criminal appeals court’s decision, saying the Briseno factors were outside of the clinical consensus means of evaluating one’s mental capacity and adding that the appeals court strayed from Supreme Court precedent in its decision.

The Supreme Court told the lower court to reassess Moore’s eligibility for the death penalty using the updated standards. The appeals court reconsidered the case but again concluded the Moore was eligible for the death penalty.

However, the Supreme Court said Tuesday that the appeals court demonstrated “too many instances in which, with small variations, it repeats the analysis we previously found wanting, and these same parts are critical to its ultimate conclusion.”

“We conclude that the appeals court’s opinion, when taken as a whole and when read in the light both of our prior opinion and the trial court record, rests upon analysis too much of which too closely resembles what we previously found improper,” the Supreme Court found. “And extricating that analysis from the opinion leaves too little that might warrant reaching a different conclusion than did the trial court.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissented from the majority ruling, saying that the Supreme Court had not been clear in stating how lower courts should apply standards for evaluating intellectual disability. They said the role of the Supreme Court was to consider the standards used by lower courts, not to review factual findings of a particular case.

In their response to the ruling, the Catholic Mobilizing Network said they “continue to pray for Bobby James Moore’s victim, James McCarble, and his family,” and encouraged Catholics to defend all human life.

“As a Church, we are called to the work of building a culture of life that upholds human dignity,” Murphy said. “Catholics should pay attention to death penalty cases before the Supreme Court such as this one, because they serve as important measures of how the highest court in the land is working to defend or disregard human life.”

 

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