Two SCOTUS decisions address intellectual disability and race in capital punishment

The U.S. Supreme Court has made two significant rulings in death penalty cases in just the past month. One centered on intellectual disability, the other racism. Both cases were out of Texas.

In just the past month, the U.S. Supreme Court has made two significant rulings in two Texas death penalty cases, and both are positive. One centered on intellectual disability of defendants, the other on racism in sentencing.

In a decision announced this morning, the Court ruled, 5-3, that Texas was using outdated standards in determining the intellectual impairment of Bobby James Moore.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that, “Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake.”

Moore, who is 56, was convicted of killing a clerk in a grocery store during a robbery in May 1980. He was sentenced to death three months later.

Moore’s IQ score has ranged from the low 50 to the 70s, and after Hall v. Florida found that it was unconstitutional to execute people with an intellectual disability, based on a strict 70 IQ cutoff, his attorneys appealed his death sentence and a state judge ruled in his favor in 2001. But in September of last year, the state appealed, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), citing a 1992 standard of intellectual disability, found that he was not intellectually impaired and upheld his death sentence. (The CCA said the 1992 standard must be applied until the state legislature enacts new guidelines.)

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, and was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Last month, the Court ruled, 6-2, that Duane Buck should receive a new sentencing hearing because during his trial his lawyer introduced evidence that he was more prone to violence because he is African-American.

Buck, who has been on death row since 1997, was convicted of killing two people in Harris County in 1996. He was found guilty, and during the penalty phase of the trial, a psychologist who was called by the defense wrote in an assessment that there was an increased probability that Buck would exhibit violent behavior in the future because he was black. In Texas, a jury must unanimously conclude that the defendant is likely to commit future criminal acts of violence in order to sentence him to death. The prosecutor elicited the same opinion during cross-examination, and Buck was subsequently sentenced to death by the jury.

Because Buck’s own attorney called the psychologist as a witness, he was denied a new sentencing hearing, with a federal district judge saying his case was not “extraordinary” enough to reopen. The former state attorney general (now governor) Greg Abbott said “Buck’s constitutional rights were not violated because Buck himself presented the testimony about which he now complains.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit denied Buck’s attempt to overturn his death sentence. Texas says future litigation of the long-running case is barred for procedural reasons.

Buck’s attorneys asked the court to grant his appeal based on ineffective counsel. “The fact that Mr. Buck’s trial counsel injected an explicit appeal to racial bias, fear and stereotype into the sentencing proceedings establishes that Mr. Buck’s ineffectiveness claim, and, indeed, his case overall, is extraordinary,” they wrote.

In his majority opinion, Justice Roberts wrote “Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,”

Both defendants are African-American, and both were sentenced in Harris County, where a University of Maryland study found the district attorney at the time was three times more likely to seek the death penalty when the defendant is African-American.

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