In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing individuals with intellectual disability violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court reasoned that offenders with intellectual disabilities had impairments in their abilities to logically reason, process information, control impulses, and learn from experience. These factors made them less morally culpable and more susceptible to a wrongful conviction. In cases across the country, states have now been tasked with finding fair and accurate ways of determining whether someone has an intellectual disability.
The Texas Case of Bobby Moore
In 1980, Bobby Moore fatally shot a store clerk during a botched robbery attempt. A Texas jury convicted him of capital murder and sentenced him to death. Moore challenged his death sentence on the grounds that he was intellectually disabled and therefore not subject to the death penalty. A Texas habeas court found that pursuant to Atkins, and the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case Hall v. Florida, Moore qualified as intellectually disabled and recommended that his death sentence be overturned.
Before making its decision, the habeas court heard evidence from Moore's family, former attorneys, and some court-appointed mental health professionals. The evidence established that Moore had serious intellectual deficits beginning at an early age. Even as a teenager he had trouble telling time and following the days of the weeks. Moore eventually dropped out of high school and began living on the streets. The court consulted medical diagnostic standards and based its finding of intellectual disability on three accepted factors: 1) intellectual-functioning deficits (based on an IQ score—Moore’s was 70.66); 2) adaptive deficits (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances); and 3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor. Based on these factors the habeas court found that Moore was intellectually disabled.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) disagreed with the recommendation of the habeas court because the habeas court relied on a medical standard of establishing intellectual disability rather than the standard the CCA had set out in case law. The standard used by the CCA was based on an older medical standard and required that an offender’s adaptive deficits be related to his intellectual-functioning deficits. The CCA believed Moore’s adaptive deficits could be the result of his difficult childhood and history of drug abuse. The CCA also assessed Moore’s IQ score to not be low enough based on some tests he had taken where his IQ was higher than the 70 point cut off.
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the CCA’s decision, finding that the CCA’s standard of establishing intellectual disability was flawed because it was not in line with current medical standards and the Supreme Court’s decisions. The case was sent back to the CCA for another determination on whether Moore was intellectually disabled.
In June of 2018, the CCA upheld Bobby Moore’s death sentence, finding that he still did not meet the definition of intellectually disabled. The CCA used current medical standards for determining intellectual disability. The CCA found that Moore did not have enough adaptive deficits, citing the fact that he learned to read and write in prison and was capable of purchasing items from the prison commissary. The CCA put a great deal of weight on Moore’s progress in the contained death row environment where adaptive skills are not as necessary as they would be outside of prison. Moore will likely appeal his case back to the Supreme Court but, based on the current makeup of the Court, the likelihood of his death sentence being overturned seems slim.
If you or a loved one has an intellectual disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.