Court Spares Retarded Killer

A Soyuz TMA-10 booster rocket blasts off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Saturday, April 7, 2007.
Texas jurors who sentenced a retarded killer to death did not get clear instructions about how to weigh the defendant's mental abilities against the severity of his crime, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The ruling overturned the death sentence of Johnny Paul Penry, whose lawyers claim their client has the mind of a 7-year-old, still believes in Santa Claus and likes to play with coloring books.

The case, sent back to a federal appeals court, does not answer a larger question about whether execution of the mentally retarded is constitutional.

Read All About It
  • Click here to see the Supreme Court's decision in the case Penry v. Johnson.
  • Or here for a description of Penry's crimes.
  • Penry was convicted of murdering Pamela Moseley Carpenter in Texas in 1979. She was the sister of former Washington Redskins place-kicker Mark Moseley.

    Penry killed Carpenter with her own pair of scissors after forcing his way into her home and raping her. He was out on probation for a 1977 rape at the time.

    Penry's IQ is said by his lawyers to be between 50 and 63, below the 70 required for normal intelligence. Prosecutors have argued that Penry, who confessed to the crime, has been pretending to be retarded.

    Penry's attorneys argued the judge in the case issued "hopelessly confusing instructions" to jurors before they began deciding whether Penry should live or die.

    The opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the jury instruction was "ineffective and illogical" and did not allow jurors to consider mitigating evidence of Penry's mental retardation and childhood abuse.

    Group Wants Moratorium
    A civil rights group is calling for a halt to federal executions so that possible racial bias in death sentences can be studied.

    The Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions delivered a letter to President Bush Monday in which they asked for convicted triple murderer Juan Raul Garza's June 19 execution to be postponed.

    Garza was supposed to die in December, but President Clinton put it off for six months so the Justice Department could study racial disparities in capital sentences.

    A Justice Department study released in September indicated racial and regional disparities in the government's decision to seek the death penalty in federal cases.

    "Whatever one's views on the appropriateness of the death penalty, it is unconscionable to carry it out while questions remain about the fairness of its application," the CMFE wrote.

    The CFME said the Justice Department began preparations to conduct a study, but now intends not to. A Justice Department spokeswoman said she could not comment.

    The group also told Mr. Bush the FBI's failure to hand over thousands of documents to Timothy McVeigh's lawyers raised doubts about the fairness of the federal death penalty system.

    Rev. Jesse Jackson and leading death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean were among the signers.


    The Supreme Court in 1989 threw out Penry's conviction and ordered a new trial on the grounds that juries in capital murder trials must be allowed to weigh evidence of mental retardation.

    Penry then was retried, convicted and again sentenced to death in 1990.

    But in the resentencing, O'Connor wrote, the Texas trial court did not follow the Supreme Court's guidance.

    O'Connor said the new instructions failed to provide the jury "with a vehicle for expressing its reasoned moral response to the mitigating evidence of Penry's mental retardation and childhood abuse."

    The second sentencing — as did the first — left no vehicle for jurors to express the view that Penry should get life, not death, based on mitigating evidence, O'Connor said.

    O'Connor wrote that jurors were asked to vote "no" to specific questions if they thought the death penalty was inappropriate — even if their answers to those questions would have been "yes."

    "The jury was essentially instructed to return a false answer … in order to avoid a death sentence," O'Connor wrote.

    The vote was 6-3 on the crucial question of the instructions. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — the court's three most conservative members — dissented from the ruling.

    The high court will consider the broader issue of executing mentally retarded people iits term that begins in October, in another case.

    In its 1989 ruling in the Penry case, the Supreme Court found that executing the mentally retarded did not violate the cruel and unusual punishment ban.

    Click here to learn more about the death penalty in America.

    The Texas Legislature recently passed a bill banning the execution of mentally retarded persons. Gov. Rick Perry hasn't said whether he will sign it. Texas leads the nation in executions.

    State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who sponsored the bill, has said six mentally retarded people have been put to death in Texas since the state resumed executions. State Rep. Juan Hinojosa says seven retarded inmates are on death row.

    In another section of the decision, the court unanimously held that admission into evidence of statements from a psychiatric report based on an interview with Penry did not violate his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

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