Texas Must Broaden Death-Penalty Exemption, High Court Says

  • 5-3 ruling centers on exemption for intellectually disabled
  • Death-penalty case divides court along ideological lines

A divided U.S. Supreme Court said Texas must broaden its death-penalty exemption for people who are intellectually disabled, ruling that the state was violating the Constitution by using outdated medical standards.

The 5-3 ruling could mean a new sentencing hearing for Bobby James Moore, 57, who was convicted of fatally shooting James McCarble during a 1980 grocery store robbery in Houston.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that, while states have some flexibility to determine who’s ineligible for the death penalty, they can’t completely disregard current medical standards. The case divided the court along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court’s liberal wing in the majority.

"Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake," Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

The Supreme Court barred the execution of intellectually disabled people in 2002 as violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments. To a large degree, however, the court left it to the states to determine who qualifies for that exemption.

Texas is one of the nation’s top death-penalty states, with 239 people on death row, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website.

In upholding Moore’s death sentence, Texas’s top criminal appeals court said the state could continue to use a 1992 definition of intellectual disability as part of a multi-factor test for determining eligibility for capital punishment.

The state court also said it stood by a 2004 ruling that used Lennie Small, a mentally challenged character in John Steinbeck’s novel "Of Mice and Men," as an example of someone who might be exempt from the death penalty.

Ginsburg called that test an "outlier," saying that only two other state courts had adopted anything similar.

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said the high court had overstepped its authority.

"Clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards," Roberts wrote for himself and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, "and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment."

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