The Supreme Court on Monday overturned the death sentence of a convicted Texas killer because jurors in his trial did not consider his learning disability and other evidence.
The unsigned 7-2 decision is another reproach of Texas, which executes more people than any other state.
Texas courts had turned down LaRoyce Lathair Smith’s appeal of his sentence for the January 1991 killing of a Taco Bell manager during a robbery attempt in Dallas. The victim, 19-year-old Jennifer Soto, was pistol-whipped, shot and stabbed with a butcher knife.
In the ruling, justices cited their decision nearly five months ago in the case of another Texas death row inmate, Robert Tennard, which opened the door to new challenges from several dozen condemned men in Texas who claim they have low IQs and were not given enough chance to present mitigating evidence to a jury.
“There is no question that a jury might well have considered [Smith’s] IQ scores and history of participation in special-education classes as a reason to impose a sentence more lenient than death,” the court wrote in Monday’s decision.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the most conservative justices, disagreed.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had joined Scalia and Thomas in opposing the outcome of the earlier Texas case. Rehnquist, who has been away from the court since last month while receiving chemotherapy and radiation for thyroid cancer, supported the latest decision, although no explanation was provided.