Too Dumb to Die

Kevin Moore's case raises questions about executing the mentally disabled

In the early-morning hours of Friday, July 25, 2002, Kevin Moore walked down SE Second Avenue in Deerfield Beach. The skinny, five-foot-nine-inch 23-year-old stopped in front of 1101 SE Second Ave., a yellow two-bedroom house that belonged to 92-year-old Yvonne Moss.

Aiming to collect $30 for painting two iron bars earlier that week, he walked up to the white front door and found it unlocked. He ambled into Moss' living room and then continued on to the kitchen, where he found a roll of clear packaging tape and a black-handled knife with a long, sharp blade. Next, he entered the bedroom, dropped the tape on the floor, and climbed atop Moss' slight frame, holding the blade to the neck of the sleeping elderly woman.

He pushed his jean shorts down to his ankles and pulled Moss' beige nightgown above her waist. Moss awoke and struggled. Moore held her down. With his free hand, he alternately massaged himself and touched Moss. He climaxed. Moss fought. Moore continued to restrain his victim for a few seconds before relinquishing his hold and slicing an opening into the 92-year-old woman's neck. Then he slashed her throat again. And again. Blood pooled beneath Moss' head. Moore took a pillow and covered his victim's pale white face. She was dead.

On his way out, the intruder took a gray belt and slipped it through the loops of his shorts. He walked four blocks back to his uncle's duplex, picked up a change of clothes, and then continued to a Mobil gas station on Federal Highway. In the bathroom, he rinsed his soiled clothing and placed it in a garbage can, leaving the stolen belt in the loops of his shorts.

Alex Regas, an employee of the gas station, walked into the bathroom as Moore changed. He startled the young man, who the attendant later told police had "wacky eyes." (The pupil of Moore's left eye points permanently to the bridge of his nose, making him cross-eyed.) Regas left, telling Moore he'd come back later to clean. Moore then walked out and caught a bus heading toward Fort Lauderdale.

That morning, David Moss, a 45-year-old private investigator, arrived at his mother's house to help prepare her meals for the day. After he found her body, Moss called police. "I'm never going to forget this," he says of the incident. "When that's the last thing you view of your mother, it's hard to get closure."

During the next week, the Broward Sheriff's Office pieced together the crime. Investigators gathered Moss' stolen belt and the attacker's discarded clothing, then took testimony from neighbors about a cross-eyed man who had trawled the neighborhood hoping to cut a deal turning green lawn clippings into green cash.

On August 23, 2002, the Broward State Attorney's Office charged Moore with first-degree murder and requested the death penalty. But Moore was spared execution on December 12, 2003, when he accepted a plea for life in prison. His indictment has since turned into something much more than a way to punish a man for killing an elderly woman. Complicating this case was the fact that Moore is mentally challenged; his 54-point intelligence quotient is 16 points below the line for retardation. Over the past 17 months, lawyers prosecuting and defending the alleged murderer have exposed possible problems in Florida law and raised questions about whether a mentally disabled man's crime can be so heinous that he deserves to die.


Seventy percent of Americans support the death penalty, according to a recent Gallup poll. But the country, on both state and federal levels, has spent the past decade debating how capital punishment should affect the mentally disabled. The issue first came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, in the case of Texas murderer Johnny Paul Penry. At the time, the court did not prohibit Texas from executing the mentally disabled murderer, but in a majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor explained that "evolving standards of decency" could one day sway the court.

In the years that followed the ruling, 16 state legislatures, including that of Florida, prohibited execution of the mentally disabled. In 2001, the Sunshine State added to the books Statute 921.137, which allows a judge to spare a mentally disabled person from death after a jury decides upon capital punishment.

One year later, the issue returned to the U.S. Supreme Court when it considered the case of a brutal killer from Virginia, Daryl Renard Atkins, whose 59-point IQ qualified him as mentally disabled. On August 16, 1996, Atkins and his friend William Jones spent the day drinking and smoking marijuana. That evening, Atkins borrowed a gun, and the pair went to a convenience store for beer. They panhandled until about 11:30 p.m., when they held up a patron, Eric Nesbitt; they took $60 from his wallet and then forced him to withdraw an additional $200 from an ATM. Afterward, Jones suggested that they tie up their captive. But Atkins had another idea. After driving to a secluded location, Atkins pulled Nesbitt out of the truck and shot the man eight times, killing him. The two were later arrested, and Jones testified against his friend.

A Virginia jury convicted Atkins of first-degree murder. His attorneys argued that the killer was unfit for the death penalty. In Virginia, as was the case in many states, mental deficiencies were considered mitigating circumstances. Atkins' low IQ might have qualified him for that description, but he carried out a sophisticated crime and was seemingly intelligent, according to trial evidence. In interviews with psychologists, he showed that he knew John F. Kennedy was president in 1961 and could provide the names of Virginia's two previous governors. Jurors were not convinced that the man was in fact mentally retarded. As a result, they unanimously chose to sentence him to death.

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