Supreme Court Rejects Texas Court’s Definition of Intellectual Disability in Capital Case

In a 5-3 decision in a capital case the Supreme Court rejected a Texas court’s reliance on a 1992 definition of intellectual disability and the use of a number of factors as indicators of intellectual disability which the Court described an “invention…untied to any acknowledged source.”

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.

Generally, to be intellectually disabled for purposes of the death penalty a person must have an IQ of 70 or less (adjusted plus or minus five for the standard error of measurement) and “adaptive deficiencies” (an inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances) onset as a minor.

In 1980, Bobby Moore was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for fatally shooting a store clerk during a robbery.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) rejected another court’s conclusion that Moore is intellectually disabled. The CCA concluded Moore doesn’t have significantly subaverage intellectual functioning because he scored 74 on an IQ test. Relying on a 2004 CAA case Ex parte Briseno, the CCA considered Moore’s adaptive deficits based on a 1992 manual defining intellectual disability. The CAA also relied on “seven evidentiary factors” for assessing adaptive functioning set out in Briseno.

In Moore v. Texas the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ginsburg, rejected both the CAA’s conclusion that Moore’s IQ score establishes that he isn’t intellectually disabled and the CAA’s reliance on Briseno.

In Hall v. Florida (2014) the Court held that when an IQ score adjusted for the standard error of measurement is below 70 courts must consider other evidence of intellectual disability. Moore’s score of 74, adjusted for standard error of measurement, yields a range of 69-74.

Regarding adaptive functioning, the Supreme Court pointed out that a number of the CAA’s conclusions based on the 1992 definition of intellectually disabled are not consistent with current views of the medical community. The Supreme Court noted that the CAA focused on Moore’s adaptive strengths but the medical community currently focuses on deficits. Likewise, the CAA concluded that Moore’s traumatic experiences count against a determination that his intellectual and adaptive deficits were related and required him to show that his adaptive deficits weren’t related to a personality disorder. But currently the medical community counts traumatic experiences as a risk factor for intellectual disability and because intellectual disability frequently coexists with other conditions, a personality disorders is “not evidence that a person doesn’t have intellectual disability.”

Finally, the Supreme Court rejected the seven evidentiary factors set forth in Briseno for assessing adaptive functioning. One of the factors included asking friends and family members their opinion if the defendant is mentally retarded—which the Court stated just leads to stereotyping. The Court also pointed out that no state legislature has approved the use of the Briseno factors “or anything similar.”