After Being Reversed Twice, Texas Appeals Court Takes Intellectually Disabled Prisoner Off Death Row

After being reversed twice by the United States Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has resentenced intellectually disabled death-row prisoner Bobby James Moore to life in prison. In a three-page decision issued on November 6, 2019, 39 years after Moore was sentenced to death in Houston for a 1980 murder during a supermarket robbery, the CCA conceded that the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that “Moore … is a person with intellectual disability.” Given that determination, the CCA wrote, “[t]here is nothing left for us to do but to implement the Supreme Court’s decision.”

The CCA had been repeatedly criticized in the past for allowing the execution of intellectually disabled prisoners despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that the practice constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In March 2017, in Moore’s case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s use of a set of lay stereotypes to evaluate intellectual disability in death penalty cases as an unscientific “invention … untied to any acknowledged source” that lacked support from “any authority, medical or judicial.” The Court wrote that Texas’s “outlier” approach, “[b]y design and in operation, … create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”

The Court returned Moore’s case to the CCA with directions to reconsider his claim based upon prevailing clinical standards for assessing intellectual disability. At that time, Harris County prosecutors agreed with Moore’s lawyers and mental health advocacy organizations that Moore meets the medically established criteria for intellectual disability and therefore could not be executed. Nonetheless, the CCA again ruled against Moore. Three judges dissented, cataloguing the numerous groups that had concluded Moore satisfied the medical criteria for intellectual disability. They wrote: “There is only one outlier in this group that concludes that applicant is ineligible for execution due to his intellectual disability, but unfortunately for applicant, at this juncture, it is the only one that matters. Today, in solitude, a majority of this Court holds that applicant is not intellectually disabled, and it denies his application for habeas relief.”

In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court again reversed, criticizing the CCA for relying upon the same improper lay stereotypes and committing many of the same errors that had led the Court to overturn the CCA’s prior decision in the case. The Justices independently reviewed the evidence, concluded that Moore met the criteria for intellectual disability, and returned the case to the Texas courts.

The CCA wrote that the Supreme Court’s conclusion that Moore is intellectually disabled “is determinative.… Accordingly, we reform Applicant’s sentence of death to a sentence of life imprisonment.”

Moore’s defense team expressed pleasure at the court’s ruling. “We greatly appreciate that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has implemented the Supreme Court decision and has ensured that justice is done regarding the inappropriateness of the death penalty for Bobby Moore,” Cliff Sloan wrote in a statement.

Sources

Chuck Lindell, Overruled twice, Texas court toss­es out Moore’s death sen­tence, Austin American-Statesman, November 6, 2019; Jolie McCullough, Bobby Moore’s death sen­tence is changed to life in prison after lengthy court fights over intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty, Texas Tribune, November 6, 2019; Sarah Marloff, Bobby Moore Will Not Be Executed, Austin Chronicle, November 62019.

Read the opin­ion of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals here.