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Supreme Court Strikes Down Texas Disability Standards In Death Row Cases


The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a death sentence in Texas today. The court ruled the state had been using obsolete medical standards to determine whether those convicted of murder could be exempt from the death penalty for reasons of mental deficiency. The 5-to-3 decision came in the case of Bobby James Moore.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: There is no doubt about Moore's guilt or about the fact that he has limited mental abilities. Even the prosecution's psychologists testified at trial that Moore suffers from borderline intellectual functioning. At age 13, he did not understand the days of the week, the months of the year, how to tell time. He failed first grade twice. And when Moore was 14, his father threw him out of the house, leaving him to live on the streets. Six years later, Moore was arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

That all took place before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of the, quote, "mentally retarded." Back then, the court left the states some leeway in defining who is intellectually disabled. But in 2014, the high court told the states they were not free to use a rigid IQ number to determine retardation and that the definition of mental retardation must be informed by the medical community's diagnostic framework.

Nonetheless, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals continued to use the definition of mental disability from a manual put out by the American Association on Mental Retardation in 1992, as opposed to the revised manual put out in 2010. And the state court asserted that because Moore had adapted to life on the streets and because he was able to make plans, like wearing a wig to hide his identity during the 1980 robbery, he was not mentally disabled enough to be exempt from the death penalty.

Today, the Supreme Court firmly rejected that standard as an unconstitutional outlier. Writing for the court majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that states may not disregard current medical standards. They must use the standard statistical error rate in evaluating IQ test scores. Indeed, said Ginsburg, Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, like schools and the provision of social services, while at the same time the state clings to superseded standards when an individual life is at stake.

The ruling is likely to force a re-examination of about two dozen death penalty sentences for death row inmates in Texas, according to Jordan Steiker, director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas, Austin. But he pointed to a, quote, "troubling dynamic," in which he said the Supreme Court makes a death penalty ruling, Texas uses a variety of techniques to avoid compliance...

JORDAN STEIKER: Eventually, the Supreme Court comes around and says that it really means what it said, but by the time the Supreme Court corrects the Texas approach, there have already been inmates who've been executed under the inappropriate constitutional standard.

TOTENBERG: Joining Justice Ginsburg in the majority today were justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Surprisingly, even the court's three dissenters led by Chief Justice John Roberts agreed that Texas had used the wrong standard. But they would have given the state somewhat more latitude, at least for now.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC SONG, "TIME IS THE ENEMY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.