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Supreme Court blocks death sentence for Texas inmate, citing mental disability

Supreme Court blocks death sentence for Texas inmate, citing mental disability
The Supreme Court on Feb. 14, 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

The Supreme Court set aside a death sentence on Tuesday for a Texas inmate who as a teenager struggled to tell time and name the days of the week, concluding he should not be executed in light of his mental disability.

The 5-3 decision is the latest in which the justices restricted the use of the death penalty for convicted murderers who have a significant intellectual disability.

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Three years ago, the justices faulted Florida authorities for relying on a standard of an IQ score of 70 to decide who is and is not mentally disabled.

In Tuesday's decision, they faulted Texas judges for disregarding "current medical standards" in deciding who qualifies for the exemption.

Washington attorney Clifford Sloan, who represented the Texas defendant, said the court "had reaffirmed that all persons with an intellectual disability are exempt for execution," and its opinion "sensibly directed Texas courts to be informed by the medical community's current diagnostic framework before imposing our society's gravest sentence."

His client, Bobby James Moore, has been on death row in Texas since 1980 for shooting and killing a store clerk in a botched robbery in Houston. He was then 20 years old.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it was apparent from Moore's early years that he had a severe disability.

"At 13, Moore lacked the basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year and the seasons; he could scarcely tell time or comprehend the standards of measure," Ginsburg said. "Moore's father, teachers and peers called him 'stupid' for his slow reading and speech. After failing every subject in the ninth grade, Moore dropped out of high school. Cast out of his home, he survived on the streets, eating from trash cans, even after two bouts of food poisoning."

Two months after the store robbery, Moore was sentenced to death. But in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment" to execute defendants who were intellectually disabled. The justices reasoned that these convicts lacked the ability to foresee the consequences of their behavior, and they therefore did not qualify as the worst of the worst among murderers.

The decision left states some leeway to decide who qualified for the exemption.

In Moore's case, a state judge heard from experts and examined the evidence in his case and concluded he should not be executed. Moore's latest IQ score of 74 suggested he had a "mild intellectual disability" that was apparent since his childhood, the state judge said.

But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed and restored his death sentence. Its judges relied on 1992 standards that focused on how the individual had adapted. Its opinion cited a state expert who testified that Moore demonstrated "adaptive strengths" by living on the streets and committing a crime that had called for planning.

In Moore vs. Texas, Ginsburg said the Texas judges had wrongly cited behavior such as living on the streets and playing pool as evidence that Moore had overcome his mental disability. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented. While he agreed that the state's authorities may have used outdated standards, he said Moore's IQ scores were in the range that disproves he had "significantly sub-average intellectual functioning." He also questioned whether Tuesday's opinion had clarified the law in this area. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito joined him in dissent.

On Twitter: DavidGSavage

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