The U. S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument Tuesday to decide if a Texas murderer’s claim that the state’s current standard for determining if he is exempt from execution by reason of mental retardation should be broadened to comply with new standards announced by two private associations.
In 2002, the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that the Constitution prohibits the states and the federal government from executing a murderer determined to be mentally retarded. While not announcing a standard for determining mental retardation, the Court did discuss the standard recognized at the time, i.e., IQ scores below 70 and a history of poor adaptive skills. Following Atkins, states with capital punishment developed standards utilizing those two factors.
At issue in the case of Moore v. Texas is whether the states should now be required to follow the evolving standards announced by two private associations: the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).
The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case to encourage a decision to reject this change.
The case involves the conviction and death sentence of Bobby James Moore for a robbery and murder, which occurred 36 years ago. On April 26, 1980, Moore and two accomplices attempted to rob the Birdsall Super Market in Houston, Texas. Eyewitnesses testified to seeing Moore shoot 72-year-old store employee James McCarble in the head with a shotgun while he had his hands up and was cooperating. Other witnesses gave police the license plate number of the getaway vehicle along with other evidence, which led to the arrest of one of the accomplices at a house where Moore also lived. Police recovered a shotgun matching the murder weapon under Moore’s bed. A short time later, the other accomplice turned himself in to police, confessed to the robbery, and identified Moore as the murderer. Police arrested Moore at his grandmother’s house in Louisiana and returned him to Houston where he confessed to killing McCarble.
At trial, Moore denied making a confession and claimed that he was in Louisiana at the time of the murder. Based upon substantial evidence to the contrary, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death. After nearly two decades of unsuccessful appeals, Moore won a new sentencing trial in 2001, but the new jury also gave him a death sentence.
Following the Atkins decision, Moore filed a state habeas corpus petition, claiming that his death sentence was invalid because he was mentally retarded. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals conducted an extensive review of Moore’s claim, finding that he did not meet any of the state’s thresholds for mental retardation. When Moore appealed that decision to the U. S. Supreme Court, he argued that the Texas standards were no longer valid, and that the most recent new standards announced by the APA and the AAIDD should now be required.
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Moore’s claim, CJLF joined the case to argue that the two organizations cited by the defense have repeatedly changed their definitions of what constitutes mental retardation, now renamed “intellectual disability.” If states are required to adhere to those changes, every murderer sentenced before the newest standards are announced could challenge his sentence, claiming that he would be designated as retarded under the new ones.
“Allowing private organizations with political agendas to control how states determine whether murderers are mentally retarded would invite endless litigation over the sentencing of guilty and fully competent murderers such as Moore,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.
CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.