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Supreme Court seems to favor Texas death row inmate


The U.S. Supreme Court seemed likely Tuesday to side with a longtime death row inmate in Texas who claims he is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible to be executed.

A majority of justices during arguments at the high court expressed misgivings with the way the top Texas criminal appeals court evaluates borderline cases of intellectual disability.

That court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, reversed a lower court and ruled that inmate Bobby James Moore was not intellectually disabled. Moore was convicted in the shotgun killing of a Houston grocery store clerk in 1980.

The Supreme Court held in 2002 that people convicted of murder who are intellectually disabled cannot be executed. The court gave states some discretion to decide how to determine intellectual disability. The justices have wrestled in several more recent cases about how much discretion to allow.

The Texas court’s approach, said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opens “the door to inconsistent results, depending on who is sitting on the trial court bench, something we try to prevent from happening in capital cases.” The court’s three other liberal justices and Justice Anthony Kennedy, voiced similar concerns.

Two years ago, Kennedy and the four liberal justices formed a majority when the court ruled unconstitutional a Florida law that barred any other evidence of intellectual disability if an inmate’s IQ was over 70.

Texas looks at three main points to define intellectual disability: IQ scores, with 70 generally considered a threshold; an inmate’s ability to interact with others and care for him- or herself and whether evidence of deficiencies in either of those areas occurred before age 18.

The state, defending the Texas court ruling, said Moore had a troubled childhood with little supervision and scored 57, 77 and 78 on IQ tests before dropping out of school in the ninth grade. He’d been convicted four times of felonies by age 17 but never was diagnosed with an intellectual disability as a youth, the state argued.

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller urged the justices to leave the state court ruling in place, arguing that the Texas court does not always rule for the state in cases in which defendants claim they are intellectually disabled.

Representing Moore, Washington lawyer Clifford Sloan said Texas does not rely on clinical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability, which he said stands “in sharp contrast” to the earlier Supreme Court rulings.

A decision in Moore v. Texas, 15-797, is expected by June.


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