Mentally Retarded on Death Row


"In 1979 Johnny Paul Penry forced himself into the house of East Texas homemaker Pamela Moseley Carpenter, 22, raped her, beat her and fatally stabbed her.  Before she died, she managed to describe her killer to police.  Penry later confessed to the murder.  Last Thursday he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.  That would hardly be a rare occurrence in the state of Texas: Penry, 44, would have been the 38th man executed in Texas this year, a record for a single state since authorities began keeping track in 1930.  But less than four hours before he was scheduled to die, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution.  The reason the Justices took that rare step concerns issues surrounding Penry's mental retardation.


"With an IQ that has been tested between 53 and 60 (an IQ of 70 is considered the threshold of mental retardation), Penry reportedly spends his days drawing with crayons and looking at comic books, since he cannot read.  He was removed from school before finishing the first grade by his mother, who, according to relatives and a former neighbor, habitually beat Penry on the head with a belt buckle, locked him indoors for prolonged periods and made him drink his own urine.  At 12, he was sent to a state school for the mentally retarded.  In a recent interview with the New York Times, Penry spoke of his belief in Santa Claus.


"Penry stands at the center of a debate that bedevils even some supporters of the death penalty: Should the state execute people who have committed brutal acts but have the mentality of children?  'While no one minimizes the severity of the crime,' Penry's attorney, Robert Smith, wrote in his appeal to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, 'because of his mental retardation and family background, it is not possible that Johnny Paul Penry is among the mot culpable offenders for whom the ultimate punishment is reserved.'


"Of the 38 states that allow the death penalty, 13 bar the execution of the mentally retarded, a does the U.S. government for federal inmates.  In 1989 the Supreme Court ruled that while executing those with diminished mental capabilities does not violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a defendant's IQ and background are mitigating factors that should be considered by a jury when deciding punishment.  It was, in fact, Penry's first scheduled execution that precipitated the landmark decision.  The high court concluded that the jury in Penry's original 1980 conviction had not been asked to consider his mental capabilities when deciding on punishment.  The court sent the case back to Texas, where Penry was once again convicted and sentenced to death.  His lawyers contend that in the second trial, jury members did not get clear instructions to evaluate his mental maturity" (TIME magazine, November 27, 2000).







The issue is not just about mental retardation and the death penalty.  The bigger issue is about ensuring that the jury understands the mitigating circumstances when they decide whether or not to impose the death penalty.  You can make a reasonable argument for executing Penry; however, you cannot make that argument without taking into consideration all the mitigating circumstances.


Given the mitigating circumstances in the above case, how might you argue for life imprisonment rather than the death penalty?


You might, for example, argue that this man has never had a chance to live life in a way that would allow him to make choices that are not distorted by his experiences.  He does not know how to delay gratification, to have empathy for another human being, to be a functional member of our society. 


However, if I were arguing for a life in prison, I would want that prison to offer him ways of growing, ways of beginning to care for others, ways of becoming more human.  Through that growth it would be my hope that he would learn about the love of God, a love that he has never had a chance to learn about.  But, does the prison offer that opportunity for someone like Penry?  It appears that it does not, that in the 20 years that he has been locked up he has not grown.  What a tremendous condemnation the Penry life presents---condemnation of a society that did not protect him or give him opportunity as a child, condemnation of a prison system that continued to deny him his most fundamental of rights.


Yes, Penry's vicious acts should also be condemned, however, if we do not condemn the system that created Penry, then we will simply create more like him!