Cases and Deals

Blank Rome Collaborates with The Arc through Moore Case on Eradicating Intellectual Disability Stereotypes in Death Penalty Cases

On February 19, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in Moore v. Texas that death row inmate Bobby Moore is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution, in accordance with the position advocated by The Arc, on whose behalf a pro bono team of Blank Rome attorneys filed an amicus brief in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”) prior to the case’s return to the Supreme Court. The Arc is a nonprofit organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and it provides assistance through 650 chapters nationwide, including in Texas.  

This was the second time that the Supreme Court took up Mr. Moore’s case, having previously issued a ruling in his favor that vacated the TCCA’s decision and held that the TCCA’s legal standard for intellectual disability determinations was flawed. On remand to the TCCA, the Blank Rome pro bono team filed an amicus brief on behalf of The Arc detailing how the TCCA’s initial analysis was out of step with clinical standards regarding intellectual disability diagnosis and modern understanding of the condition, which Justice Alcala cited in dissent. Nevertheless, a majority of the TCCA again ruled on remand that Mr. Moore was not intellectually disabled and should be executed. Mr. Moore next returned to the Supreme Court for relief, where The Arc’s amicus brief before the TCCA was part of the record before the Supreme Court. 

The central tenets of The Arc’s position regarding the appropriate standard for assessing intellectual disability—in contrast to the prejudiced standard previously used under Texas law—were vindicated in the Supreme Court’s decision. First, the Supreme Court described as one of the bases for its summary reversal the fact that a proper intellectual disability diagnosis analyzes an individual’s adaptive deficits, in contrast to the TCCA’s focus on what it claimed were Mr. Moore’s adaptive capabilities. Second, the Supreme Court reiterated, as The Arc had cautioned, that observed behavior in the structured environment of prison is inappropriate for this assessment. In addition, The Arc had emphasized that co-morbidities with other conditions are not mutually exclusive to an intellectual disability diagnosis, pursuant to the AAIDD Manual and the DSM-5, the leading clinical guides, and similarly, that it is improper to require a causative link between intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior in the diagnostic process. The Supreme Court faulted the TCCA for repeating the mistaken imposition of this “relatedness” requirement on remand, despite its guidance in Moore I.

Importantly, Moore II re-emphasized the Supreme Court’s unanimous rebuke of the Briseño factors that Texas courts had used to evaluate adaptive deficits instead of clinical standards. The Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion noted that “despite the court of appeals’ statement that it would ‘abandon reliance on the Briseño evidentiary fac­tors,’ it seems to have used many of those factors in reaching its conclusion,” factors that the Supreme Court noted rely on “lay stereotypes of the intellectually disabled.” Chief Justice Roberts, who joined the majority in Moore II, also faulted the TCCA for persisting in its reliance on the Briseño factors. These factors have long been the subject of criticism by The Arc and other leading clinical, legal, and academic institutions. 

The Supreme Court’s recent decision ensures that Briseño and other ill-informed views of intellectual disability will play no further part in attempts to legitimize executions of intellectually disabled individuals in Texas. To learn more about this case, please read the ABA Journal article, For a Second Time, Supreme Court Rules for Texas Death-Row Inmate Claiming Intellectual Disability

The Blank Rome pro bono team was led by Larry Shtasel and David Meyer, and included dedicated assistance from additional attorneys and staff within the Firm.