The high court said Thursday evening it wants more time to decide whether to hear arguments that Johnny Paul Penry's mental deficiency was not properly explained to the jury. The justices did not say how long the stay of execution would last.
"At least I'm alive," Penry said when told of the reprieve.
Penry, 44, was to become 38th Texas inmate to be executed this year - the highest number by any state since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. His execution had been scheduled for Thursday evening. It was the third execution scheduled in as many nights in Texas.
Penry's case was at the center of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on executing the retarded, and his impending execution drew protests from around the world. The European Union, anti-death penalty groups, the American Bar Association and advocates for the retarded urged Texas not to execute him.
Penry was condemned for raping and fatally stabbing and beating 22-year-old East Texas housewife Pamela Moseley Carpenter in 1979. He was on parole at the time for a rape.
His lawyers described him as having an IQ of 50 to 60 and the reasoning capacity of a 7-year-old.
But prosecutors said Penry is ignorant, not retarded. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn said Penry is "a schemer, a planner and can be purposefully deceptive."
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Tuesday denied Penry's request for a 30-day reprieve and a commutation to a lesser sentence.
Fourteen Texas state senators sent a letter to Gov. George W. Bush asking him to issue a reprieve. Bush has invoked his authority to temporarily halt an execution only once in his nearly six years in office.
"The governor obviously won't make any comment about any reprieve request until all remaining court appeals have been completed," Bush spokesman Mike Jones said.
Penry had two competency trials and two murder trials. His second capital murder trial came after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his original death sentence. The court said it is not cruel and unusual punishment to execute the mentally retarded, but juries must consider retardation when considering the death penalty.
About two dozen states allow the execution of retarded killers, although some are considering laws prohibiting the practice.
Penry would not be the first mentally disabled inmate executed in Texas. In August, Oliver David Cruz, whose IQ tested as low as 63, received lethal injection for a 1988 murder in San Antonio.
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