Every day in my work, I see people with intellectual disability who are capable of many wonderful accomplishments. They hold jobs, they fall in love and, yes, they perform and excel in the Special Olympics.
Contrary to some harmful and outdated stereotypes, however, their many capabilities do not mean that they don’t have intellectual disability.
But this is what a troubling court decision in Texas would have us believe, in a case that is headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court for a second time.
Bobby Moore, a man with intellectual disability, is on death row in Texas. In 1980, he was convicted of killing a store clerk during a bungled robbery in Houston.
Medical experts and even the prosecutors in the case agree that Moore has intellectual disability. Because of his disability, under the U.S. Constitution, Moore cannot be executed.
But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has determined, erroneously, that Moore can be executed. The court’s reasoning: Because of the things he can do, Moore must not have intellectual disability.
The court came to this senseless conclusion based on evidence showing that, earlier in his life, Moore demonstrated what the judges viewed as strengths: the ability to mow lawns, to play pool, to have a girlfriend and to survive with the help of others.
Because of these perceived strengths, this Texas court decided Moore didn’t have intellectual disability, despite the fact that he meets all three of the clinical prongs.
There’s evidence of onset before the age of 18. School records show that, at 13, Moore couldn’t tell time and didn’t know the days of the week, the months of the year or the seasons. Moore was separated from the rest of his class.
Moore’s tested IQ, roughly 70, meets medical standards for intellectual disability.
Finally, Moore demonstrated what are known as “adaptive deficits,” or deficiencies in what are commonly referred to as life skills. When he was evaluated for “executive function,” which involves planning and other mental processes, Moore was found to be far below the standard that needs to be met in order to live independently. Moore’s executive function was the lowest the expert had ever recorded, in fact.
The Texas court looked at all this evidence and nevertheless decided that pool games played and lawns mowed — the things Moore could do — somehow outweighed what Moore couldn’t do. Its decision, in other words, is the direct result of misguided prejudice about people with intellectual disability. If you’re good at something, this faulty logic says, you can’t have intellectual disability.
Tell that to our stunning athletes in the Special Olympics.
The court’s logic is absurd, wrong and harmful. But most important, it’s not how the medical community diagnoses intellectual disability.
One of the most extraordinary things about Moore’s case is that the U.S. Supreme Court has already declared the Texas court’s reasoning a miscarriage of justice. In 2017, the Supreme Court vacated the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ earlier, similar decision, finding that the court had disregarded medical standards.
The case was then sent back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The district attorney filed a brief agreeing that Moore has intellectual disability and cannot be executed, and stating that the prosecutors no longer seek to execute him.
At that point, many expected the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to move Moore off death row, where he is kept in solitary confinement — conditions that are especially agonizing for people with intellectual disability.
But in June of this year, a bare majority of judges found again that Moore does not have intellectual disability and therefore must be executed. Again, the judges based their decision on Moore’s perceived strengths and on their own unsubstantiated view of what constitutes intellectual disability.
Three judges wrote a vigorous dissent, emphasizing that the Texas court’s ruling conflicted with both the U.S. Supreme Court decision and the brief submitted by the prosecutors. The Texas court’s decision was based on “a stereotyped view of the intellectually disabled as having to be entirely non-functional people,” the dissent said.
Now Moore’s lawyers are going back to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking enforcement of its own previous decision that Texas must use medical standards, rather than its own stereotypes, to determine intellectual disability.
I very much hope the U.S. Supreme Court ensures that Moore’s case is resolved fairly. Our Constitution secures the legal rights of all people with intellectual disability, including protection from execution.
Pervasive stereotypes about intellectual disability are inaccurate and harmful. In this Texas court case, they are a matter of life or death. Let’s finally recognize the complexity of people with intellectual disability. The world will be much richer for it.