WASHINGTON A majority of U.S. Supreme Court
justices on Tuesday appeared ready to side with a man sentenced
to death for a 1980 Houston murder who is challenging how Texas
gauges whether a defendant has intellectual disabilities that
would preclude execution.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of people
who are intellectually disabled violates the U.S. Constitution's
ban on cruel and unusual punishment. At issue in the arguments
the eight justices heard on Tuesday was whether Texas is using
an obsolete standard to assess whether a defendant is
Bobby Moore, convicted at age 20 of fatally shooting a
70-year-old grocery clerk during a 1980 Houston robbery, is
challenging his sentence in Texas, which carries out more
executions than any other U.S. state.
Moore's lawyers contend their client is intellectually
disabled and should be spared execution. They argued that a
lower court that upheld his sentence wrongly used an "outdated"
24-year-old definition used in Texas when it determined he was
not intellectually disabled.
Moore's appeal focused on how judges should weigh medical
evidence of intellectual disability. His lawyers said that a
lower court found that Moore's IQ of 70 was "within the range of
mild mental retardation."
Based on questions asked during the argument, the justices,
equally divided between liberals and conservatives, appeared
likely to rule for Moore, 57.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides
with the liberals, looked likely to be the key vote. Kennedy and
two other current justices were in the majority in the 2002
ruling precluding executing people with an intellectual
At one point during the argument, Kennedy said that the
state appeals court precedent on which Texas relies was intended
to "really limit" the definition of intellectual disability.
Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller responded that the
state court has "never said that the purpose ... is to screen
out individuals and deny them relief."
"But isn't that the effect?" Kennedy asked.
Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, said the Texas standards
appeared to reflect a decision by the state court to reject
expert clinical findings because "they don't reflect what Texas
The Supreme Court's justices have differed among themselves
over capital punishment but the court has shown no indication it
will take up the broader question of the whether the death
penalty itself violates the Constitution. Liberal justices
Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have said the way the
death penalty is implemented may be unconstitutional, in part
because of differences from state to state.
Breyer hinted at those concerns during Tuesday's argument.
He said it may not be possible to set an intellectual disability
standard that is applied uniformly nationwide, meaning there
will be "disparities and uncertainties" and "people who are
alike treated differently."
The high court on Oct. 5 heard arguments in another Texas
death penalty case. In that one, the justices appeared poised to
rule in favor of black convicted murderer Duane Buck, who is
seeking to avoid execution after his own trial lawyer called an
expert witness who testified Buck was more likely to be
dangerous in the future because of his race.
Rulings in both cases are due by the end of June.