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Steinbeck Comes to the Supreme Court

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Whether a Texas inmate lives or dies could depend, in part, on the work of John Steinbeck. In the upcoming term, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Moore v. Texas, a challenge to the sentence of Bobby James Moore, who faces execution for the murder of grocery store clerk, but who also suffers from severe intellectual incapacity.

The case asks the Court to weigh in on the standard Texas uses when deciding if someone's intellectual disability is so extreme as to disqualify them from a death sentence. Moore wants a standard that comports with modern medical understandings. Texas's highest criminal court, however, demanded the use of a more out-dated metric, the so-called "Lennie standard," named after the sweet-natured, but feeble-minded character from Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."

Bobby, Lennie, and the Supreme Court

In 2002's Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that executing the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. But the Court left it largely to the states themselves to determine when someone is intellectually disabled.

In Texas, as the New York Times noted recently, courts have insisted on the "Lennie standard." That name, the Time's Adam Liptak writes, comes from a 2004 ruling by Judge Cathy Cochran for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court.

"Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt" from the death penalty, she wrote, laying out seven factors that courts should look to when deciding whether to spare a hypothetical Lennie, or a very real defendant like Bobby James Moore.

Will the Lennie Standard Live On?

Moore didn't pass the Lennie test, according to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; nor did he meet the court's adopted definition of intellectual disability, one based off 1992 standards. A lower court had overturned Moore's death sentence based on modern medical standards for determining intellectual disabilities. Not convinced, Texas's highest criminal court reinstated Moore's sentence, insisting that the 1992 definition and the Lennie standard must be used.

The Supreme Court will now have to determine whether Texas's standards meet the requirements of the constitution.

When Moore's death sentence was reinstated by the Texas court, Judge Elsa Alcalá wrote the sole dissent. "I would set forth a standard," she said, "that does not include any reference to a fictional character."

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