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Supreme Court: Texas Used Improper Mental Disability Standards for Death Penalty Eligibility

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 30, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One of the tenets of our current capital punishment scheme is that subjecting mentally disabled defendants to the death penalty violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The question then becomes, however, how do we decide if someone is mentally disabled, and just how mentally impaired must a defendant be to avoid the death penalty?

The State of Texas had set out a seven-factor test for determining death penalty eligibility, but that was overturned by the Supreme Court yesterday, which ruled that such decisions must be "informed by the views of medical experts." So what is the new standard?

Establishing Mental Disability

The 5-3 majority decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, focused largely on the life and circumstances of Bobby James Moore, convicted of shooting and killing a store clerk in a botched robbery attempt in 1980 and sentenced to death:

A 13, Moore lacked basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year, and the seasons; he could scarcely tell time or comprehend the standards of measure or the basic principle that subtraction is the reverse of addition. At school, because of his limited ability to read and write, Moore could not keep up with lessons. Often, he was separated from the rest of the class and told to draw pictures. Moore's father, teachers, and peers called him "stupid" for his slow reading and speech. After failing every subject in the ninth grade, Moore dropped out of high school.

A Texas habeas court looked at Moore's IQ, scored at just 70 points, and decided he had "subaverage intellectual functioning" along with "significant adaptive deficits" and recommended that Moore's death penalty sentence be reduced to life in prison or that he be given a new trial based on his mental disability.

A Line Drawing Exercise

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) overturned that decision, though, ruling that the habeas court should've relied on seven evidentiary factors from a 2004 decision, which itself was based on a manual from the American Association on Mental Retardation from 1992. But the Supreme Court disagreed, calling that standard "an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source" and ruling "they may not be used ... to restrict qualification of an individual as intellectually disabled."

So how should states determine mental disability? The Court didn't lay down any strict rules, noting only that, while states have some flexibility in their examination of mental capacity, they do have "unfettered discretion." Instead, their rulings should be informed by the medical community's current standards and "diagnostic framework" which can reflect "improved understanding over time." So as medical professionals' understanding of mental disability evolves, so shall the criminal justice system's.

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