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Texas Poised to Set an Execution Record

Law: Three men are scheduled to die this week, bringing annual total to 38. One is said to be retarded, believing in Santa Claus.

November 14, 2000|From Reuters

HOUSTON — Texas is expected to break its own U.S. record for most executions in a year when it puts three men to death this week, the last of whom is said to be so mentally retarded that he still believes in Santa Claus.

The executions, which are scheduled for three consecutive nights starting tonight, would give Texas 38 for the year, the most by any state since U.S. authorities began keeping death penalty records in 1930.

Texas holds the record with 37 executions in 1997 and has put a nation-leading 234 people to death since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on the death penalty in 1976.

Of those 234 executions, 147 have been performed since Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush became Texas governor in January 1995.

Those set to die by lethal injection this week include, in chronological order, convicted murderers Stacey Lawton, Tony Chambers and Johnny Paul Penry.

Lawton, 31, shot a man to death while robbing his home in 1992. Chambers, 32, sexually assaulted and murdered an 11-year-old girl in 1990, and Penry, 44, raped and stabbed a woman to death in 1979.

Penry's case in particular has touched off another round of protests from death penalty opponents who believe that Texas justice is deeply flawed.

Amnesty International and other groups have asked that Penry be saved from Thursday's execution because he is retarded.

During a 1990 trial, his attorneys said he scored 63 on an IQ test, which is below the minimum of 70 required for normal intelligence.

"If it goes ahead, his execution will fly in the face of long-held international standards of justice and decency," said Anne James of Amnesty International's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Penry was convicted of raping and stabbing to death Pamela Carpenter, 22, in the East Texas town of Livingston on Oct. 25, 1979. In a confession to police, he said: "I told her that I loved her and hated to kill her, but I had to so she wouldn't squeal on me."

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Penry expressed confusion about what would happen to him and discussed his thoughts on Santa Claus.

"They keep talking about Santa Claus being down at the North Pole," he told the newspaper. "Some people say it's not true. I got to where I do believe there's a Santa Claus."

Prosecutors have argued in past hearings that Penry is a sociopath who is manipulating the system by pretending to be retarded.

Penry's request for a stay of execution is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. He also seeks clemency from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has granted it only once in the last five years. He also could get a 30-day stay from Bush.

Bush spokeswoman Linda Edwards said Monday that the governor, currently embroiled in the controversy about the outcome of last week's national election, would take no action until the courts and the Texas parole board have made their decisions.

Regarding the contention that Texas should not execute a retarded person, Edwards said: "Gov. Bush believes Texas law has numerous protections to prevent mentally incompetent offenders from being wrongly executed."

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