In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), and Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. _____, the United States Supreme Court held, among other things, that states cannot execute someone who is mentally disabled. The Court also left to the states the task of determining whether a death row inmate has a mental disability that could prevent their execution. Moore v. Texas, 581 U.S. _____ (2017), decided on March 28, 2017, clarifies this aspect of Atkins and Hall. Briefly, in Moore, the Court held that state courts must utilize established diagnostic criteria when ascertaining whether a death row inmate has a mental disability. In reaffirming its prior holdings that executing someone with a mental disability is unconstitutional, the Court noted that even mild mental or intellectual disabilities are disabilities, and states cannot execute anyone within the entire category of intellectually disabled offenders.
In 1980, Moore and two others robbed a supermarket in Houston. At the supermarket, Moore and the others approached a courtesy booth that held two employees. One of them realized that a robbery was taking place and started to scream. Moore shot her in the head and killed her. He fled, was arrested after 10 days, charged with capital murder, tried and sentenced to death by a jury. Moore’s appeals spanned the next three decades. In 2014, after a two-day hearing, a state habeas court concluded that Moore had an intellectual disability. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”), the final arbiter of habeas petitions in that state, rejected this conclusion and held its own hearing. The CCA applied the criteria set forth in a 2004 Texas case, Ex Parte Briseno, which are as follows:
- Did those who knew the defendant well during his developmental stages (family, friends, educators, employers, and other authorities), believe he was mentally retarded, and act in accordance with that assessment;
- Has the defendant formulated and carried out plans, or is their conduct impulsive;
- Does the defendant’s conduct indicate that they are a “leader” or “follower”;
- Are the defendant’s responses to external stimuli rational and appropriate;
- Are the defendant’s responses to oral or written questions on point, or does s/he wander from one subject to the next;
- Can the defendant lie effectively; and
- Did the underlying offense require planning, forethought and complex execution?