The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Texas’ method for evaluating mental disability in death-row inmates was a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The court ordered Texas to use modern medical standards, rather than the criteria the state currently use, which are based on medical standards from 1992, to determine whether death row inmates are fit to be executed.
The inmate in question — Bobby Moore, who has been on death row for more than 36 years — will have his case sent back to Texas’ highest criminal court for reevaluation. A trial judge once declared Moore intellectually disabled, noting, among other evidence, that Moore still had trouble understanding the days of the week and the seasons of the year.
The justices voted 5-3 to reject Texas’ method for evaluating mental disability, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissenting.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the court’s opinion, rejected Texas’ current approach in no uncertain terms. For years, Texas has used a test called the Briseño standard to evaluate mental disability. The test involves a 1992 definition of disability used by the American Association on Mental Retardation as well as a number of subjective factors devised by a former judge.
Because the former judge, Cathy Cochran, quoted a John Steinbeck novel in her original ruling, citing the character Lennie Small as an example of someone who should be exempt from the death penalty, some critics refer to the method she devised as “the Lennie standard.”
The Texas court “advanced lay perceptions of intellectual disability,” Ginsburg wrote. “Those stereotypes, much more than medical and clinical appraisals, spark skepticism.”
The case began in 1980, when Moore, who was 20, was involved in a grocery store robbery in Houston. Moore shot and killed James McCarble, the 73-year-old clerk behind the counter.
Two months later, he was sentenced to death. But lawyers for Moore, who was still illiterate at the age of 14, argued that he was severely intellectually disabled, and made Moore’s intellectual disability a major part of their appeal strategy.
In 2002, the Supreme Court banned the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities, noting that it was a violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court gave broad leeway to the states to determine who qualified as intellectually disabled.
In the court’s ruling on Tuesday, Ginsburg wrote that court hadn’t licensed “disregard of current medical standards.” Disregarding modern medical criteria, she said, is what Texas was trying to do.