Mental Illness and the Death Penalty
The Supreme Court has some work to do regarding state's rights to punish some death penalty cases.
Credit: ©Brand X Pictures/PunchStock

Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

Among the most controversial issues in the United States today is the use of the death penalty. And that issue gets even murkier when one considers the role of mental illness and mental disability in a death penalty sentence. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court just reversed a decision by the Texas courts that would have sentenced a mentally disabled man to death–for the second time. Here, Election Central takes a closer look.

“Cruel and Unusual”

In April 1980, a man named Bobby J. Moore shot and killed a 72-year-old supermarket clerk during a robbery in Houston, Texas. Moore was found guilty and sentenced to death for his crime. He has been on death row ever since. But Moore’s case is complicated: by some standards, he is mentally disabled. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it goes against the U.S. Constitution to execute someone who is mentally disabled–because to do so would violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.” But then the question becames: what exactly does it mean to be mentally disabled? And who decides if a defendant does or does not fit this description?

Who Decides?

After Atkins, the Supreme Court issued general guidelines to the states about how to determine whether or not a defendant can be considered mentally disabled. In order to qualify, he or she must:

  • exhibit proof of low intellectual functioning (typically an IQ score lower than 70);
  • show a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and
  • prove that both of the above conditions were present in the individual before the age of 18.

Consider again the case of Bobby J. Moore. Because Moore’s IQ was in the range of 69-79–slightly above the ruling’s cutoff of 70-years-old–other factors had to be taken into consideration when determining his mental capacity. Moore’s case reached the Supreme Court in 2015. According to the Texas courts, the fact that Moore was able to live on the streets, and made money by mowing lawns, showed that he had adequate mental functioning.

The state of Texas also argued that because Moore had worn a wig during the robbery, he had shown forethought and planning skills. But the Supreme Court pointed out that Moore was a teenager before he knew the days of the week or months of the year. He couldn’t tell time or comprehend basic math. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that the Texas court had used unfair standards to measure Moore’s mental capacity. By a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Texas court’s decision to execute him.

What Happened Next?

Essentially, the Supreme Court’s decision punted Moore’s fate back to the Texas courts. Texas evaluated Moore once again, this time using updated standards to evaluate him. By the new standards, the state again found him to be mentally fit enough to receive the death penalty. For the second time, the case wound its way back to the Supreme Court. Again, the Supreme Court questioned the standards Texas used. The state’s standards had been updated, but they still included odd metrics, such as an individual’s leadership skills or ability to tell a lie. So last Tuesday, the Supreme Court once again reversed Texas’s decision and spared Moore’s life. It is likely, however, that disagreement over the intersection between mental illness and the death penalty will continue.

What Do You Think? Pretend that you serve on the United States Supreme Court. Would you have reversed the Texas court’s death penalty sentence for Bobby J. Moore? Why or why not? Please remember to be respectful with your response.
Valerie Cumming


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