Texas’ execution disregards intellectually disabled

Emma Berdanier

In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that individuals with an intellectual disability cannot be executed. However, this ruling failed to specify what standards should be used to judge an individual’s intellectual competency. Now the state of Texas is defending its use of outdated measurements of intelligence in lieu of current scientific standards in the case of Moore v. Texas, which was heard before the court yesterday.

The case looks at Bobby Moore, whose 1980 death sentence was reversed following the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling. Despite a psychologist and expert witnesses testifying that Moore was intellectually disabled, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the ruling in 2015.

That final reversal, which is what is being challenged before the Supreme Court, hinges on Texas’ use of the Briseno factors. These outdated factors, which have been compared to something out of Steinbeck’s 1937 novel “Of Mice and Men,” disregard scientific and medical evidence in favor of fictional ideas of what an intellectually disabled person should look like. The seven factors, in plain English, essentially amount to a person who is able to follow through with an idea without clearly being manipulated to do so, meaning that they “could have” talked themselves out of committing a crime. If used, they can overrule any scientific test.

This sets a dangerous precedent within the United States, as it allows states to completely disregard scientific evidence in support of baseless standards that allow them to continue executing people regardless of their intellectual competency.

In multiple cases within Texas since 2002, the Briseno factors have been used to guarantee that no matter the IQ of an individual or the testimony of expert witnesses to their intellectual competency they are put to death. And it’s no secret that Texas loves to implement the death penalty. It tops the list of states in number of executions since 1976 by over 400 more than the runner up, Oklahoma. 

The continued use of the Briseno factors, and the implementation of them over scientific standards that should be nationally upheld, appears as just a way for Texas to enact more executions. While the result of the current case is in the Supreme Court’s hands, they must reach a ruling that finds Texas’ use of the Briseno factors to be an inaccurate and unconstitutional way of determining
intellectual competency. 

However this ruling must also be paired with legislative action. Either Texas needs to strike down old, outdated methods of determining intellectual competency — both the Briseno factors and their preferred use of the 1992 American Association on Mental Retardation diagnostic manual — or the federal government needs to implement a national scientific standard for such cases that includes testing conceptual, social and practical skills and an individual’s IQ. This needs to be done not only to protect the rights of intellectually disabled individuals, but to protect the place of science within a changing political climate.

Berdanier is a philosophy junior from Boulder, Colorado. Follow her on Twitter @eberdanier.