Supreme Court to Decide Definition of “Intellectually Disabled” in Death Penalty Case

In Moore v. Texas the Supreme Court will review a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision to apply a previous definition of “intellectually disabled” adopted in a 1992 death penalty case rather than the current definition. Texas Legislature’s failure to act compels its decision, the lower court reasoned.

In Atkins v. Virginia (1992) the Supreme Court held that executing the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court tasked states with implementing Atkins.

In 1980, Bobby Moore was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for fatally shooting a seventy-year-old grocery clerk during a robbery.

In 2014 another court concluded Moore was intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution relying on the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities current definition of intellectual disabled.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, relying on a 2004 case that adopted the definition of intellectual disability stated in the ninth edition of the American Association on Mental Retardation manual published in 1992, concluded that Moore wasn’t intellectually disabled. According to the court it was up to the Texas Legislature to implement Atkins. Until it did so, the court would continue to apply this 1992 definition.

A dissenting judge stated that it is the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ responsibility to “consult the medical community’s current views and standards in determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled.” According to the dissent, blaming the Texas Legislature for failing to act “abdicates [the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’] responsibility to ensure that federal constitutional rights are fully protected in Texas.”

Moore also asked the Supreme Court to decide whether execution after an excessively long period of confinement under a death sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court refused to agree to decide this issue.