An opportunity for Texas on intellectual disability

Many families have loved ones with intellectual disabilities. Our family members and neighbors with intellectual disabilities — like everyone else — are able to do some things on their own, but need help doing other things.

The fans at Texas Special Olympics, who have watched nearly 60,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities compete over the years, know this to be true. They have seen people with intellectual disabilities excel at bowling, table tennis, soccer and other Special Olympics sports. They understand the significant challenges faced by people with intellectual disabilities, but they also know how wrong it is to think that for people to be “good” at something, they must not have intellectual disabilities.

But look at how the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) handled Bobby Moore’s case. Moore is a man with a lifelong, documented intellectual disability who has been on death row since 1980. Two years ago, the CCA erroneously concluded that, since Moore could play pool and mow lawns, he must not have an intellectual disability. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned that decision and ruled in Moore’s favor, the CCA has the chance to set it right. With the Supreme Court’s decision, the CCA can go from being an outlier at odds with governing clinical principles to being an example of a court carefully adhering to them.

A finding of intellectual disability can literally be a matter of life and death. The Supreme Court has held that people with intellectual disabilities are exempt from capital punishment. In the landmark decision of Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, the court ruled that, in light of their limitations, people with intellectual disability are not “the worst of the worst.” They can — and should — be held accountable and sentenced for crimes they commit, but under the Constitution, they cannot be executed.

In 2015, a Harris County District Court judge concluded that Moore — whose IQ is around 70 — has an intellectual disability and cannot be executed. The trial court emphasized his significant deficits — for example, his inability to tell time, to understand the seasons or the days of the week, or to perform basic addition as a teenager; his failure in every single grade in school, including first grade twice; and his persistence in eating from trash cans even after multiple bouts of food poisoning.

The CCA, however, disagreed that Moore has intellectual disability. The CCA erroneously focused on Mr. Moore’s “strengths” — his ability to mow lawns and play pool; the fact that he eventually was able to learn to read and write as an adult in prison. In the CCA’s mistaken view, Moore couldn’t have an intellectual disability because he was able to do some things well.

That view has no medical or scientific basis. Instead, whether intended or not, it perpetuates the harmful and dehumanizing stereotype that individuals with intellectual disabilities can’t be good at anything.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court takes only a handful of cases each year, thankfully, it reviewed Moore’s case. In March, the court rejected the CCA’s ruling that Moore did not have an intellectual disability. The Supreme Court made clear that it was error to “overemphasize” his perceived strengths rather than focus on his significant deficits. The court resolved all issues in Moore’s favor and strongly endorsed the conclusions and recommendation of the Harris County trial court.

Now that Moore’s case is back before the CCA, that court must decide whether it will: (1), continue to use harmful stereotypes to attempt to deny the existence of Moore’s intellectual disability; or (2), follow the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and agree that Moore is intellectually disabled under current medical standards.

The proper resolution is simple. Moore’s death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment. Such a sentence would hold Moore accountable for his crime while respecting his constitutional rights. It would also allow him to be moved from solitary confinement and into the general prison population. Last week, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office agreed that in light of the Supreme Court’s decision and current medical standards, Moore is entitled to such relief as a person with intellectual disability.

More than 50 years ago, my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, on signing his last piece of legislation, the Community Mental Health Act, said that people with intellectual disabilities “need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.” He and my mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, began the long process of ending the stigma and fear that surround intellectual disabilities, but much more work remains to be done.

We cannot go back and change the marginalization that Bobby Moore experienced as a child and young man, or the fact that our systems failed to help him. Tragically, we cannot undo the crimes that he committed. But we can affirm his fundamental human dignity. I hope the CCA will choose life imprisonment for Bobby Moore. Such an action would clearly show that the CCA, rather than opposing current standards on intellectual disability, understands and applies them.

Tim Shriver

Chairman, Special Olympics