U.S. Supreme Court Makes Major Ruling in Texas Death Penalty Case

Another blow today to the Texas death penalty, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas uses improper measurements to determine if a defendant is mentally disables, and ineligible for execution, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

In a 5-3 vote, the justices ruled in favor of Bobby Moore, 57, who has been on death row for 36 years.  The justices said the state's method of determining mental capacity violates the Eight Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

"This decision reinforces what the court said several years ago," Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center told News Radio 1200 WOAI.  "While states have some discretion, they are not free to invent their own rules."

Cliff Stone, Moore's attorney, agreed.

“Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that all persons with intellectual disability are exempt from execution, and that current medical standards must be used to determine whether a person is intellectually disabled," he said.   "The Supreme Court has made clear that no state may assess intellectual disability in a manner that would allow for the execution of someone who has intellectual disability under current medical standards.  The Supreme Court has sensibly directed Texas courts to be informed by the medical community's current diagnostic framework before imposing our society's gravest sentence,”

Moore was sentenced to death for murdering a 73 year old grocery clerk during a bungled robbery attempt back in 1980.  The death sentence was overturned due to Moore's mental disability, but it was re-instated by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that people with mental disabilities cannot be executed, but left it up to the states to determine how to measure what those disabilities are.

Texas uses what is called the 'Briseno Test,' which people like Dunham say is arbitrary, and even includes a reference to the classic character Lennie Small, the mentally disabled migrant worker in John Steinbeck's novel 'Of Mice and Men.'

"What we will see is a more circumspect approach by prosecutors in determining who they will seek the death penalty against," Dunham said.

It is the second block to the Texas death penalty in the last several months.  A court previously overturned a death sentence against a Houston man, because the jury was told during his sentencing phase that he was more likely to reoffend, one of the affirmative questions a jury has to answer when sentencing a person to death, solely because he is African American.

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