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U.S. Supreme Court bars Texas from executing death row inmate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Texas cannot execute a black death row inmate convicted in the 1980 Houston murder of a grocery store clerk, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, concluding that he is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from capital punishment.

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The divided court ruled that a Texas appeals court misapplied the law by again rejecting an appeal brought by inmate Bobby Moore, 59, seeking to avoid execution on the basis of intellectual disability.

Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state since the Supreme Court allowed the resumption of capital punishment in 1976 after halting it in 1972. The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of people who are intellectually disabled violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The justices overturned a June 2018 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which for a second time rejected Moore’s intellectual disability claim. It marked the second decision in favor of Moore by the high court, which in 2017 ruled 5-3 that the Texas system for gauging the intellect of defendants was outdated, thus giving his lawyers another chance to try to convince a state court of his disability.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, who is emerging as the nine-member high court’s swing vote, ruled against Moore in 2017 but in favor of him this time. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito dissented from Tuesday’s unsigned ruling.

Moore, a repeat offender at the time of the murder, was convicted at age 20 of shooting elderly store clerk James McCarble in the head with a shotgun. He had entered the Birdsall Super Market with two other robbers wearing a wig and sunglasses, according to prosecutors.

“We greatly appreciate today’s important ruling from the Supreme Court, and we are very pleased that justice will be done for Bobby Moore,” said Cliff Sloan, one of Moore’s lawyers.

In an unusual move, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat and the prosecutor overseeing the case, had agreed in court filings that Moore, who has spent decades on death row, is intellectually disabled. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, filed court papers backing the lower court ruling.

“The Harris County District Attorney’s Office disagreed with our state’s highest court and the attorney general to stand for justice in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed,” Ogg said in a statement.

Moore’s lawyers had submitted various pieces of evidence they said proved his intellectual disability under current medical and clinical standards. Moore did not understand days of the week or other ways of measuring time by the age of 13 and would eat from neighbors’ garbage cans, his lawyers said.

Tuesday’s decision said the Texas court’s ruling that left the death sentence intact “rests upon analysis too much of which too closely resembles what we previously found improper.” The Supreme Court concluded that there was little point in sending the case back to the Texas court for further review, saying that “Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability.”

Texas carried out 13 of the 25 total U.S. executions last year - no other state had more than three - and has carried out one this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Supreme Court’s justices have differed over capital punishment but have shown no indication of taking up the broader question of whether the death penalty itself violates the Constitution.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham