US Supreme Court overturns death sentence for Texas inmate
Mar 30, 2017, 00:48
The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Texas applied the wrong standards when it decided that an inmate on death row was mentally competent and could be executed.
Writing in a dissent joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed that the Texas court erred by using the unscientific standards to weigh Moore's adaptive behavior - one factor in measuring intellectual disability. In 2014 a Texas court used current medical methods to determine that Moore was not eligible for execution; the Texas Court of Appeals overruled the decision, saying the lower court did not use approved Texas standards. Courts have acknowledged the important role of modern forensic science in the criminal justice system, but when it came to the death penalty, Texas oddly reverted to obsolete evaluation protocols.
The reference is to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the latest edition of which was published in 2013 and is known as the DSM-5.
Moore, a repeat offender at the time of the murder, shot store clerk James McCarble in the head with a shotgun after entering the Birdsall Super Market with two other robbers wearing a wig and sunglasses, according to prosecutors.
Evidence revealed that Moore had profound mental and social difficulties as a youth, such as an inability to tell time or to understand the seasons of the year. For example, the Texas court emphasized Moore's strengths - such as that he "lived on the streets, mowed lawns, and played pool for money" - when clinical standards indicate that it should have focused on his deficits. Often, he was separated from the rest of the class and told to draw pictures.
Moore dropped out of school after failing every subject in 9th grade. Instead, the court stressed, the factors rely on inaccurate stereotypes of the intellectually disabled by laypeople and are meant to reflect a consensus by Texans as to which defendants should or should not be subject to the death penalty.
In February, the Supreme Court blocked the execution of Duane Buck, another inmate on Texas's death row.
The Texas courts reexamined his sentence after the high court abolished capital punishment in 2002 for defendants with a mental disability. That ruling has drawn criticism over the years for its reference to the intellectually challenged character Lennie in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Briseno used a set of 1992 standards for evaluating intellectual disability, along with several "evidentiary factors" that take into account, among other things, whether the people who knew the inmate best when he was growing up regarded him as intellectually disabled. But even if an inmate has a relatively mild disability, the court emphasized, such that the Briseno factors would suggest that he is not exempt from execution, the Constitution bars the states from executing anyone with an intellectual disability. Justice Anthony Kennedy, Ginsburg, and the court's three other liberals have made great strides in limiting states' ability to execute inmates with mental impairments.
The lower court that upheld Moore's sentence wrongly used a 24-year-old definition employed in Texas when it determined Moore was not intellectually disabled, violating the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the court ruled.
Second, Ginsburg wrote that the Texas court's "consideration of Moore's adaptive functioning. deviated from prevailing clinical standards and from the older clinical standards the court claimed to apply".
"That instruction can not sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community's consensus", Ginsburg said.
On Tuesday, the Supremes ruled 5-3 that these standards can not be used. The court also maintained that Moore's IQ scores, ranging from 59 to 78, were inconclusive - though the average was roughly 70, a number that by consensus indicates mental disability.
The bottom line for the dissenters was that "clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment".
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