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Published: Thu, March 30, 2017
Business | By Patricia Jimenez

Supreme Court Sides With Texas Death-Row Inmate Who Claims Intellectual Disability

Supreme Court Sides With Texas Death-Row Inmate Who Claims Intellectual Disability

The ruling is likely to force a re-examination of about two dozen capital sentences for death row inmates in Texas, according to Jordan Steiker, Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law.

In other states, courts refer to a series of current medical standards to determine whether a murderer should be considered as having a mental disability.

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, along with Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overruled the decision, claiming the lower court erred by using those standards instead of the state's test. IQ tests have always been used to draw bright dividing lines between intellectually disabled, normal, and genius. "Moreover, the several factors Briseno set out as indicators of intellectual disability are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source". In addition, the CCA allowed courts to use pseudoscientific "evidentiary factors" drawn from stereotypes of disabled people and the character of Lennie from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Since then, some critics pejoratively refer to the method she devised as "the Lennie standard". "Those traumatic experiences, however, count in the medical community as 'risk factors' for intellectual disability", Ginsburg said. That year, justices ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional, but it left it up to the states to legally determine the condition.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court firmly rejected all these elements of the Texas standard, calling it an "outlier".

Ultimately, the Court sent a strong message not only to Texas but to other states who craft their testing for intellectual disability outside of the clinical consensus, Dunham said. Moore was convicted of the 1980 murder of James McCarble, an employee at the Birdsall Super Market in Houston. He was sentenced to death. Instead, the court stressed, the factors rely on inaccurate stereotypes of the intellectually disabled by laypeople and are meant to reflect a consensus by Texans as to which defendants should or should not be subject to the death penalty.

"If the States were to have complete autonomy to define intellectual disability as they wished", Ginsburg wrote, the 2002 decision exempting the intellectually disabled from execution "could become a nullity, and the Eighth Amendment's protection of human dignity would not become a reality".

"The Court overturns the CCA's conclusion that Moore failed to present sufficient evidence of both inadequate intellectual functioning and significant deficits in adaptive behavior without even considering "objective indicia of society's standards" reflected in the practices among the States", Roberts observes in his dissent.

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"Adjudications of intellectual disability should be 'informed by the views of medical experts, '" Ginsburg wrote.

Ginsburg noted that Texas couldn't "satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts", such as public education or the juvenile justice system, and "yet clings to superseded standards when an individual's life is at stake". Ginsburg authored the majority opinion in Moore v. Texas.

A spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general's office said the state was disappointed in the ruling but declined further comment.

Moore's lawyer, Cliff Sloan, said he was pleased the justices were willing to reaffirm that intellectually disabled individuals should be exempt from execution.

When, at a rehearing, a judge using current medical standards found Moore to be intellectually disabled, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the decision, absurdly clinging to its old contentions ordering that only the 1992 standards could be used.

The majority "crafts a constitutional holding based exclusively on what it deems to be medical consensus about intellectual disability", Roberts said. Moore's IQ, 74, led the high court to rule that this was necessary, which is what triggered Roberts' dissent.

"I think that's pretty astonishing", Steiker said. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) thought differently.

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