Texas maintains the ability to use the death penalty, but must adopt a more modern standard following an overturned death sentence by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Texas is always going to support the death penalty, that is who we are. This is our culture,” said Henry Esparza, a political science and geography professor at UTSA. “I think it makes us feel good when we put someone to death, but it’s important to be consistent within our Constitution and I don’t think that we are.”
On March 28, 2017, in Moore v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the standards Texas uses when considering the execution of a convicted murderer if that person is found to be mentally deficient.
In a 5-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court found that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sentenced Bobby James Moore, the petitioner believed by the majority of the Justices to be mentally deficient, to death citing illegitimate reasons: borderline IQ scores; outdated medical standards (Texas Court was using the manual on mental retardation from 1992); and adaptive skills such as the ablity to make plans, mow lawns, wear a disguise (to hide his identity during a robbery in 1980) and play pool for money.
Despite these capabilities, Moore suffers from borderline intellectual disability according to the prosecution’s psychologists who testified at the trial.
Moore was convicted for the murder of James McCarble, an employee at a Birdsall Super Market in 1980.
According to Mario Salas, an African American studies professor at UTSA and a former special
education teacher, using adaptive skills to determine intellectual ability is not sufficient.
“We have a lot of people who have a disability but are able to do some work. If they could mow the grass or pick up trash that still doesn’t mean they are not disabled.”
At age 13, Moore could not comprehend the days of the week, the months of the year or how to tell time. He failed all his classes and dropped out of school. His father then kicked him out of the house and he lived on the streets as a teenager.
“This boy never had a chance,” Esparza said. “In our state, I think sometimes, it becomes you are innocent until proven broke. And because money tends to buy justice, this poor boy never had a chance.”
Esparza said he wasn’t trying to excuse Moore’s crime because, to him, the issue of victims’ rights is very important.
Texas executes death row inmates more than any other state. Since 1976, 1,398 inmates have been executed in the U.S.; approximately 37 percent, 518, of these executions occurred in Texas. According to current death sentences by race in 2016, 17 blacks, six whites, four Latinos and three Asians add to the population of current inmates awaiting execution in the U.S.
According to Salas, race plays a key role in determining who receives the death penalty.
Salas added, judges aren’t culturally sensitive and jurors are not well educated in Texas.
“There is a lot of ancient way of thinking in this state. People think they are still on the frontier where they can just gather a mob of folks and have them pass sentence on someone without much understanding of what they are actually doing,” Salas said.
Following the Supreme Court ruling, states must use standard statistical error rate to assess IQ test scores. According to the Supreme Court, the Texas standards were an unconstitutional outlier.