Posted on 7/16/18

A United States Supreme Court case from 2017 thrust the Texas system for determining mental disability into the limelight. The case of Moore v. Texas was a watershed moment for criminal prosecution cases in the state of Texas.

Mental Competence

To stand trial, one must be mentally competent to stand trial. Per the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, cruel and unusual punishment is outlawed. It is considered cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute someone who is not mentally capable of standing trial.

Moore Case

In 1980, Bobby Moore and two other men robbed a store in Houston, Texas. In the course of the robbery, Moore killed employee James McCarble and fled the scene. He was arrested 10 days later and stood trial, where he was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death.

While sitting on death row, his legal team claimed that he was mentally disabled. They brought psychological evidence to demonstrate as such. To determine mental competence, Texas courts use the Briseno test, which is best on the case Ex parte Briseno:

  • Do the people closest to the person during the developmental stage (family, friends etc.) think that he/she is mentally impaired? Did they act in accordance with this reasoning?

  • Does the person have a history of formulating plans and going through with them or does he/she act impulsively?

  • Is he/she a leader? Or is he/she usually led by others?

  • How does this person respond to external stimuli? Was it rational and appropriate?

  • How does he/she respond to questions? Are the answers coherent? Rational? On point? This is applicable to both oral and written questions. Or do his or her responses wander from subject to subject?

  • Can he/she hide facts or lie effectively?

  • Did the commission of the crime use forethought, planning, and complex execution of purpose or was it more random?

Using these qualifications, a court found that Moore was mentally competent to stand trial and should therefore be on death row.

The Supreme Court

In 2017, the United States Supreme Court heard this case and struck down the Briseno factors, thereby requiring a different test for determining proper Eighth Amendment treatment. More specifically, the Court reasoned that this test was based on John Steinbeck’s book Of Mice and Men and its character Lennie Small. To properly determine Eighth Amendment compliance, the Court ordered that the state of Texas use a more scientific process of determining mental capacity.

Interestingly, the Court’s dissent felt that the Briseno standard was constitutional. The dissent reasoned that the Eighth Amendment is a decision that is left up to judges; determining mental capacity in a court context is a legal question that is let up to judges. Therefore, there is no requirement that a jurisdiction use a more “scientific” method to determine mental competence.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Moore’s conviction was vacated.

Accused of a crime? Contact the criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified criminal defense attorney.

(image courtesy of Tim Graf)

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