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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

High Court Puts on Hold Execution of Retarded Man

November 17, 2000|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution Thursday to a Texas man said to be so mentally retarded that he believes in Santa Claus.

Texas officials were scheduled to execute John Paul Penry, 44, at 6 p.m. CST Thursday for the 1979 rape and murder of Pamela Mosely Carpenter in Livingston, the East Texas town where Penry is now imprisoned.

It is not clear how long the stay will last. The high court issued a brief order saying that the execution should be halted until the court decides whether to fully review the case. Under Texas law, Penry will get an automatic stay of at least 30 days.

Just two days earlier, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted, 15 to 2, against commuting Penry's sentence to life and, 16 to 1, against granting him a reprieve.

Penry expressed happiness when he heard about the stay, said Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Fitzgerald said Penry, who had been brought from Livingston to Huntsville, where Texas executions are performed, had asked for a cheeseburger for his last meal. Penry did not eat the burger, Fitzgerald said, because he was immediately taken back to the Livingston prison.

Penry has been on death row since 1980. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a 1989 ruling, which held that Texas' death penalty law did not give jurors an adequate opportunity to hear about Penry's mental retardation. Penry was retried and once again sentenced to death.

The court said that, while Penry was 22 when he murdered Carpenter, he had "the mental age of a 6 1/2-year-old." Penry's IQ has been measured at 56 and 63 at various times. Those with IQs under 70 are considered mentally retarded.

Prosecutors said Penry is a sociopath who was well aware of what he was doing when he killed Carpenter. Among other things, they cited a confession in which Penry said: "I told her that I loved her and hated to kill her, but I had to do it so she wouldn't squeal on me."

In their brief to the Supreme Court, Penry's attorneys argued that, since the Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to execute someone younger than 16, it ought to be unconstitutional for Texas to execute someone whose mental age is considerably less than that.

Penry's attorneys also contended that the jury at his second trial was given confusing instructions by the judge on how to assess evidence that might mitigate against giving him the death penalty.

However, both state and federal appeals courts upheld the conviction and death sentence. Several leading mental health organizations, as well as Amnesty International, the European Union and the American Bar Assn., had urged Texas officials not to execute Penry.

Carpenter's family and several prosecutors who have worked on the case over the last 20 years have said that Penry should die because of the brutality and premeditated nature of the murder. The young woman was stabbed to death with scissors.

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