Civil and Human Rights

SCOTUS to Take on Solitary Confinement

By Dan McCue

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review claims that Texas used outdated standards to judge an inmate’s intellectual disability, and that the man’s many years in solitary amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The petitioner, Bobby Moore, has been on death row in Texas for nearly 36 years for a murder he committed during a bungled 1980 robbery.

Moore was convicted and sentenced to die after a jury trial, and his death sentence was later affirmed by the Texas Court of Appeals.

Following habeas proceedings in state and federal courts, a district court found Moore’s defense attorneys had failed to investigate or present mitigating evidence, including that the murder may well have been accidental.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the ruling, and ordered that Moore be given either a new punishment proceeding or a sentence less than death. However, in February 2001, a trial court again sentenced him to death.

The state returned Moore to death row and immediately placed him in what it called “administrative segregation” — solitary confinement — where he has remained, 23 hours a day, for the past 15 years.

On June 17, 2003, Moore filed a state court writ challenging his 2001 punishment retrial and death sentence on the basis of 48 different claims.

Two of these were that the Eighth Amendment barred his execution because was intellectually disabled and that execution after his prolonged confinement on death row would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

In January 2014, a state court granted his motion in part and denied it in part. The court held that Moore had proven he meets the definition of mental retardation under guidelines promulgated by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Psychiatric Association.

However, it denied him relief on the remainder of his claims.

The state appealed, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the state court’s finding on Moore’s mental incapacity, concluding that it used a current medical standard to determine the inmate’s intellectual disability, rather than the much older standard used by the state.

The appellate court held that changing or updating the standard is up to the legislature, not the judiciary.

One appellate judge dissented, arguing that “reliance on a decades-old standard no longer employed by the medical community is constitutionally unacceptable.”

Moore, now 56 years old, has twice received stays of his execution — once just 24 hours before it was to be carried out.

His attorneys argued that the Texas practice of placing death row inmates in administrative isolation deprives them “of even the most basic psychological needs” and causes them to suffer “actual psychological harm from their almost total deprivation of human contact, mental stimulus, personal property and human dignity.”

As is their practice, the justices did not explain their rationale in taking the case.

In a statement, the Constitutional Accountability Center, which is representing Moore, said “We are gratified to see the Court take up the incredibly important issues implicated in these cases and look forward to presenting the Justices with the constitutional text and history that shows excessive periods of confinement prior to execution — especially when spent in solitary confinement — violate the Eighth Amendment.”

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