US Supreme Court takes up death penalty and mental disability

On Tuesday, the justices seemed unconvinced by the Texas method, which critics say is too subjective.

Columbia: The US Supreme Court took up Tuesday the case of a longtime Texas death row inmate who claims his mental disabilities should exempt him from capital punishment -- an argument the eight justices seemed inclined to support.

No one disputes the fact that Bobby Moore, 57, shot dead a cashier at a Houston store in 1980 during a robbery gone wrong.

A few months later, Moore was sentenced to death in Texas, the state that carries out the most executions nationwide.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that those convicted of murder could not be executed if they are intellectually disabled, as it would violate the Constitution`s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The justices, however, allowed some room for lower courts to determine how to gauge such a disability.

Moore`s legal team has argued that he meets the Texas standard for being exempt from the death penalty. At age 13, Moore was unable to tell time, indicate the day of the week or do simple math.

His lead attorney Clifford Sloan argued that the Lone Star State is taking "a unique approach to intellectual disability in capital cases in which it prohibits the use of current medical standards."

"It relies on harmful and inappropriate lay stereotypes," Sloan said.Texas indeed uses the so-called "Briseno factors" -- a non-clinical, seven-faceted test that a judge based -- somewhat controversially -- on the mentally disabled character of Lennie from John Steinbeck`s classic "Of Mice and Men."

"Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck`s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt," wrote then judge Cathy Cochran in the 2004 Briseno case.

"But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?"

On Tuesday, the justices seemed unconvinced by the Texas method, which critics say is too subjective.

"The state had no problem in saying that Lennie, even though he could work, earn a living, plan his trying to hide the death of the rabbit he killed, that he could do all of those things, and yet he was not just mildly, but severely disabled," said liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"Why is the fact that he could mow lawns and play pool indicative of a strength that overcomes all the other deficits?"

Sloan replied that there was a "common stereotype and misunderstanding that if somebody has strengths, they`re not intellectually disabled."Jordan Steiker, a professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin, told AFP that Texas was indeed an "outlier."

"It is the only jurisdiction that has really sought to impose its own substantive definition of intellectual disability that`s separate and distinct from the professional clinical definition," Steiker said.

"The goal is to narrow the exemptions."

Texas accounts for 40 percent of all executions in the United States.

In other states, courts refer to a series of clinical standards in assessing mental functioning. But Texas bases its conclusions on a medical manual from 1992 with some controversial findings.

It also factors in an inmate`s IQ, a measure that has lost its predominance as a standard in favor of practical aptitude tests.

For Steiker, Moore "clearly meets the clinical definition. He has very, very poor academic performance. He basically dropped out of school after failing a number of grades, He has obvious deficits in adaptability."

In 2014, a judge sided with Moore and removed him from death row, but that ruling was overturned last year on appeal.

The appellate judges noted that he wore a wig on the day of the murder, saying that such an act showed he was mentally capable of understanding his actions.

They also noted that as a teen, he adapted to life on the streets when his father threw him out of the house.

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