Moore v. Texas: United States Supreme Court Update

By December 1, 2016 August 21st, 2019 United States Supreme Court
Moore v. Texas United States Supreme Court

Because Carver, Cantin & Mynarich, LLC represents individuals charged with capital crimes, we stay on top of the current death penalty cases. On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court held oral argument in Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797.

On June 6, 2016, the Supreme Court granted the Petition For A Writ Of Certiorari in Moore v. Texas, limiting review to the question “whether it violates the Eighth Amendment and the Court’s decisions in Hall and Atkins to prohibit the use of current medical standards on intellectual disability, and require the use of outdated medical standards, in determining whether an individual may be executed.”

In Ex Parte Moore, 470 S.W.3d 481, 485 (Texas Crim. App. 2015), the state habeas court applied the DSM-V’s current standards and determined that Moore was intellectually disabled and could not be executed by the State of Texas. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and held that the habeas court erred by relying on current medical standards governing intellectual disability rather than the Briseno standard that it had adopted from 1992 for Texas death penalty cases. Id. at 486. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the Briseno factors are to be used in evaluating the adaptive deficits prong of the intellectual disability determination. Id. at 526-527.

Judge Alcala dissented, explaining that application of the Briseno standard is constitutionally unacceptable because it considers adaptive deficits based on the DSM-IV alone. Id. at 536-537. Because the standards used by the current psychological community are set out in the DSM-V not the DSM-IV, the Briseno standard is outdated. Id. at 537. Judge Alcala specifically noted differences between the DSM-IV and DSM-V in assessing adaptive functioning:

The DSM–5 altered the “adaptive functioning requirement” by describing it as how well a person meets community standards of personal independence and social responsibility in comparison to others of similar age and sociocultural background. See American Psychiatric Ass’n, DSM–5 Intellectual Disability Fact Sheet (2013); see also Shelly Yeatts, Texas District and County Attorneys Association, Significant Changes from the DSM–IV to the DSM–5 (November 2013). The DSM–5 relies more on adaptive functioning than the DSM–IV did, both for diagnosing intellectual disability and for determining its level of severity. Id.; see also Walter Kaufmann, Intellectual Disabilities’s DSM–5 Debut, SPECTRUM NEWS 2013. In terms of diagnosis, the DSM–5 assesses the level of adaptive functioning in three domains: social, conceptual, and practical skills, and it requires at least one domain that includes several skill areas of adaptive functioning versus two or more skill areas in the DSM–IV. In short, the type of analysis for establishing adaptive functioning is different in the DSM–IV than in the DSM–5, and this Court should modify the Briseno test to conform to the current scientific standards.

470 S.W.3d at 537 (emphasis added).

Judge Alcala criticized the specific seven Briseno factors for not only being based on outdated standards but also for being unscientific. The psychological community’s standards focus exclusively on adaptive deficits and not on strengths. While similar to some of the scientific inquiries about adaptive deficits, the seven judicially-created Briseno factors “have a different focus from a determination on adaptive deficits in that they weigh a defendant’s positives against his negatives. The weighing of positives against negatives is unlike a scientific determination of adaptive deficits, which looks solely at a person’s inability to perform certain functions.” 470 S.W.3d at 540. Therefore, the seven Briseno factors “do not belong in any determination about a defendant’s adaptive deficits.” 470 S.W.3d at 540.

Like Judge Alcala’s dissent, Moore’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari argues that the Briseno factors are unscientific and inconsistent with the current standards. The Supreme Court’s opinion will inform what, if any, consideration the Briseno factors may be given in evaluating adaptive functioning. In addition to determining the applicability of the Briseno factors, the Supreme Court’s Moore decision will provide parties with guidance as to the interplay between the psychological community’s current standards and the legal framework for evaluating evidence of intellectual disability.

Audio of Supreme Court oral arguments is released on Fridays and can be found at

If you are interested in death penalty topics, we highly recommend reading about how Springfield Attorneys Helped a Client Avoid the Death Penalty last year.  Also, if you’re an attorney here in Missouri, don’t forget to add your name to the attorney referral database.

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Erica Mynarich

Author Erica Mynarich

Erica Mynarich primarily represents people charged with crimes in federal court and in Missouri state courts. Erica has extensive training in trial advocacy, including Gerry Spence’s three-week Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming and the Trial Lawyers College’s graduate program. In 2016, Erica Mynarich was honored for her excellence in trial work by receiving the Missouri Bar Foundation’s Lon O. Hocker award.

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