Don’t execute people with intellectual disabilities
The Gospel compels Christians to speak for those without a voice and to advocate for society’s most vulnerable members, including those with intellectual disability. For this reason, I feel compelled to speak out on behalf of Bobby James Moore, an individual with documented lifelong intellectual disability who has spent the past 37 years on Texas’ death row.
While Christians have varying views on the death penalty, hopefully we can all agree no person with intellectual disability should be executed. As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized more than 15 years ago, “no legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with intellectual disability” because such persons “do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.”
While the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has been reticent to heed this message, it has both the legal and moral duty to do so now. And it should take an important first step here by reforming Moore’s death sentence to life imprisonment.
As a 13-year-old, Moore lacked a basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year, telling time and the concept that subtraction is the reverse of addition. He failed the first grade twice and every grade after that before dropping out of school in the ninth grade. At age 14, his father — after subjecting Moore to years of severe mental and physical abuse — threw him out of the house because Moore still did not know how to read. Moore lived on the streets, eating out of garbage cans and sleeping in a pool hall. He survived largely due to the kindness of strangers.
Then, at age 20, Moore was involved in a bungled grocery store robbery, in which he shot and killed a grocery store clerk. He has spent nearly 40 years on death row for that crime, which we all condemn.
In 2014, a Harris County district court judge held a two-day hearing. After carefully listening to experts and witnesses, Judge Susan Brown applied current medical standards and determined that Moore is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from the death penalty. She noted that Moore has an average IQ score of 70.66, which is well within the range of intellectual disability. And she found in her lengthy fact-finding that Moore’s serious mental and social difficulties were very clear from early childhood.
The judge’s determination that Moore is intellectually disabled and exempt from the death penalty should have been the end of the matter. Instead, in 2015, the Court of Criminal Appeals said that the lower court erred in applying current medical standards in making its determination that Moore was intellectually disabled. Applying nonclinical and outdated medical standards, it decided that Moore was not intellectually disabled and could be executed.
In March, in Moore vs. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court emphatically reversed the appeals court’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court carefully reviewed the record. It emphasized that Moore’s IQ score is clearly within the range of intellectually disabled and that the evidence just as clearly supported that he had significant mental and social difficulties from an early age. The U.S. Supreme Court also strongly endorsed Brown’s application of current medical standards in concluding that Moore is intellectually disabled. Moore’s case is back before the Court of Criminal Appeals.
This case presents not only a legal issue but also a moral one. In Moore’s case, the U.S. Supreme Court questioned why Texas applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, “yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake.” The appeals court now has the opportunity to chart a new course for how Texas handles intellectual disability claims and ensure that no person with intellectually disability is executed.
Moore is not the worst of the worst, but due to his significant intellectual deficits, he is certainly among the most vulnerable. He is worthy of God’s love and our fair and humane treatment. There is a path forward that affirms Moore’s innate dignity as a human being, while still ensuring that justice is done. The Court of Criminal Appeals should follow this path and reform Moore’s death sentence to life imprisonment.
Steve Wells is pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston.