“Intellectual Disability” of capital defendants must be assessed by the latest scientific standards, and not by standards professional have long abandoned

Moore v. Texas, ___U.S. ___, No 15-797 (3/28/17)

I will follow the example of Douglas Berman’s excellent Sentencing Law and Policy blog and simply quote the first 3 paragraphs from Justice Ginsberg’s opinion to tell you all you need to know about this case.

Bobby James Moore fatally shot a store clerk during a botched robbery. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Moore challenged his death sentence on the ground that he was intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. A state habeas court made detailed factfindings and determined that, under this Court’s decisions in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304 (2002), and Hall v. Florida, 572 U. S. ___ (2014), Moore qualified as intellectually disabled. For that reason, the court concluded, Moore’s death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” The habeas court therefore recommended that Moore be granted relief.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) declined to adopt the judgment recommended by the state habeas court. In the CCA’s view, the habeas court erroneously employed intellectual-disability guides currently used in the medical community rather than the 1992 guides adopted by the CCA in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S. W. 3d 1 (2004). See Ex parte Moore, 470 S. W. 3d 481, 486–487 (2015). The appeals court further determined that the evidentiary factors announced in Briseno “weigh[ed] heavily” against upsetting Moore’s death sentence. 470 S. W. 3d, at 526.

We vacate the CCA’s judgment. As we instructed in Hall, adjudications of intellectual disability should be “informed by the views of medical experts.” 572 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 19); see id., at ___ (slip op., at 7). That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus. Moreover, the several factors Briseno set out as indicators of intellectual disability are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source. Not aligned with the medical community’s information, and drawing no strength from our precedent, the Briseno factors “creat[e] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual dis- ability will be executed,” 572 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 1). Accordingly, they may not be used, as the CCA used them, to restrict qualification of an individual as intellectually disabled.

It is refreshing in this day when many legislators and government officials think science is merely another point of view to have at least 5 members of our highest court to remind us it isn’t. I suggest reading Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent so you know what this opinion tells lower courts what they cannot do— always substitute societal (I guess in this case, that means Texans’) standards of decency for a medical assessment of clinical practice when psychological issues are at issue.

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