Today’s blog entry concerns the Supreme Court case decided yesterday, Moore v. Texas, talking about how do you go about figuring out whether a person with an intellectual disability is eligible for the death penalty. Before proceeding further, a couple of notes. First, this is the third decision in a matter of a few weeks coming down in favor of persons with disabilities. This one is a 5-3 (Kennedy with the swing vote), split rather than the unanimous opinions of the other ones. Second, I never in a million years, would have thought that a Supreme Court opinion would result in a straightforward and short blog entry, but this one does. So, here goes a practical guide for dealing with intellectual disabilities and the death penalty.

  1. Figuring out whether a person has an intellectual disability sufficient for not being eligible for the death penalty involves looking at: 1) intellectual functioning deficits. That is, whether the person has an IQ score of 70 adjusted for the standard error of measurement; 2) adaptive deficits, which is the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances; and 3) the onset of those deficits while still a minor.
  2. When an IQ score is close to but above 70, courts must account for the test’s standard error of measurement. The range is the key and not the actual given score.
  3. When an individual’s IQ score, adjusted for the test’s standard error, falls within the clinically established range for intellectual-functioning deficits, courts must continue the inquiry by considering other evidence of intellectual disability.
  4. The focus when it comes to adaptive functioning is on adaptive deficits and not on how a person might have potential strengths and some adaptive skills, such as the ability to adapt to life in prison (the Court specifically says that adaptation to life in prison is not negative evidence of the existence of an intellectual disability).
  5. The presence of mental health issues does not rule out intellectual disabilities.
  6. Mild levels of intellectual disability are intellectual disabilities and States may not execute anyone in the entire (emphasis mine), category of offenders with intellectual disabilities.
  7. In figuring all this out, medical professionals are critical. Those medical professionals, as well as the courts, must also focus on the medical evidence and not upon stereotypes.
  8. While States have flexibility in figuring out how to deal with offenders with disabilities eligible for the death penalty, if the States were to have complete autonomy in that respect, then the Eighth amendment’s protection of human dignity would be illusory.

So, there you have it; a roadmap for those defending persons with intellectual disabilities in capital murder situations. Of course, those situations are becoming less and less. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are reaching the conclusion for different reasons that the death penalty is not the way to go.