Death Sentence Overturned

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals narrowly sides with argument that killer is mentally retarded

On Oct. 5 a narrowly divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the death sentence of John Paul Penry, who was convicted of killing Pamela Carpenter in her home in Livingston in 1979. Penry's case has bounced back and forth between state and federal courts for nearly 25 years and was instrumental in raising the debate over whether it is constitutionally sound to execute mentally retarded offenders. Penry's defenders argue that he has repeatedly scored under 70 on IQ tests – the benchmark for a diagnosis of mental retardation – and that he is too childlike to understand the consequence of his crime. Prosecutors have argued that Penry's murderous actions were calculated and that he has been faking mental impairment to escape punishment.

The U.S. Supreme Court first considered Penry's case in 1989; while it upheld the practice of executing the mentally retarded as constitutional, it vacated Penry's death sentence, saying that Penry's jurors were not told they could consider his mental retardation as a possible mitigating factor. The decision forced Texas lawmakers to rewrite the so-called "special issues" jurors consider when weighing capital punishment, to include a question on whether there are mitigating circumstances that might warrant a lighter sentence. The Supremes tossed Penry's punishment again in 2001, ruling that the special issues instructions given to jurors made it impossible for them to consider anything but a death sentence. Finally, in a 2002 ruling in an unrelated case, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the practice of executing the mentally retarded as a violation of the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

On Wednesday, a 5-4 majority of the CCA overturned Penry's sentence – the first time the state appellate court has ruled in Penry's favor – opining that Penry's jurors were restricted during the punishment phase of his trial from fully considering his claims of mental retardation. For the majority, Judge Tom Price wrote that there was a "reasonable likelihood that [Penry's] jury believed that it was not permitted to consider mental impairment outside of determining whether [Penry] is mentally retarded." The confusion over how to incorporate the Supremes' 2002 ban – and thus, how Penry's jurors should've been instructed to consider his mental abilities – is largely the fault of Texas lawmakers who've been unable to come to an agreement on how the courts should consider mental retardation claims.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Capital PunishmentJohn Paul Penry, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, John Paul Penry, Pamela Carpenter, U.S. Supreme Court, Tom Price

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