The Supreme Court just paved the way for Texas to potentially overturn dozens of death sentences
Texas death row inmate Bobby Moore has been trying to convince the state that he’s intellectually disabled for 14 years. At the age of 20, he was sentenced to death for shooting and killing an elderly grocery store clerk during a failed robbery. And after years of legal battles, the Supreme Court finally stepped in.
In a 5-3 decision Tuesday, the High Court found deep flaws in Texas’ standard for determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases, sending Moore’s case back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for reassessment. The ruling also opens the door for dozens of other death row inmates in the state to challenge their sentences, according to Jordan Steiker, director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas.
“Once you strip away the considerations the Supreme Court said were inappropriate, Moore is eligible for relief,” he said. “The decision is going to require revisiting many criminal court of appeals decisions denying relief for those claims.”
With an average IQ of 70.66 over the years, Moore, now 57, shows significant cognitive disability. He caught a break in 2002 when the Supreme Court decided that intellectually disabled peopled can’t be executed. A year later, he challenged his death sentence on those grounds. But the ruling left it up to the states to decide how to determine intellectual disability. In 2004, Texas created a standard based on science from 1992 — one that included outdated medical findings, like strict IQ scores, and obscure legal questions, like if the person could lie to benefit themselves.
According to the majority Supreme Court opinion, at 13, Moore couldn’t understand how the days of the week and the seasons worked. He couldn’t tell time or comprehend the measurement system either. Teachers, his father, and other students called him stupid because he couldn’t read or write. And after failing the ninth grade and dropping out of school, he was kicked out of his house and forced to live on the street and search for food in trash cans.
In 2014, a Texas trial court found that Moore couldn’t be executed because he met the definition of intellectually disabled under the updated American Association of Intellect and Developmental Disability guidelines — not the 2004 standard the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was using. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial court’s finding in 2015 and ruled that Moore wasn’t intellectually disabled — and therefore, could be executed. That’s when the Supreme Court stepped in.
In its Tuesday decision, the Supreme Court ruled the 2004 standard was invalid, returning Moore’s case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for reconsideration of his intellectual disability. While the justices differ about who should decide the standard for intellectual disability — either scientists or judges and juries — all eight agree that Texas’ standard is unacceptable.
But Texas capital defense attorneys and anti–death penalty advocates say the Supreme Court win for Moore is bittersweet. Many of their clients who were found to be intellectually competent under the 2004 standard have already been executed.
“Talk to any capital defense attorney in Texas, and they’ll tell you about the ones who got away,” said Kathryn Kase, director of the Capital Trial Project at Texas Defender Services. “My happiness about this is tempered by the fact that it took the Supreme Court 13 years [since Texas created the standard in 2004] to slap Texas’ … decision down. That’s difficult to square.”
At least 13 people found competent because of the 2004 standard have been executed, according to a case search by Melissa Hamilton, a visiting legal scholar at the University of Houston. That includes one of Steiker’s clients, Elroy Chester, in 2013, and one of Kase’s clients, Marvin Wilson, in 2012.
“The Supreme Court declined to hear a number of cases that were just as compelling as Moore’s that directly called [the standard] into question,” Steiker said.
Now that Moore’s case has been decided, stayed death penalty cases across Texas will start to move forward again.
“The decision is clear, and a lot of people’s lives will be saved,” Kase said. “Texas was not only wrong; it was dead wrong.”
CORRECTION (March 30, 8:34 a.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly state the Supreme Court ruled on Monday. Its decision came down on Tuesday.