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Convicted Killer Competent, Texas Jury Says

April 12, 2002|From Associated Press

CONROE, Texas — Convicted killer Johnny Paul Penry, described by his lawyers as mentally retarded, is competent to assist in his defense and can face a third hearing on whether he should get the death penalty, a jury decided Thursday.

The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning its verdict.

Penry, 45, has spent half his life locked up for killing Pamela Moseley Carpenter in 1979 at her home in Livingston.

He was twice sentenced to death, but both sentences were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, most recently last June. His murder conviction stands, meaning the only question a trial jury will answer at the third sentencing hearing is whether Penry deserves life in prison or lethal injection.

"We are happy, but we know we still have a long battle ahead of us," Ellen May, the victim's niece, said Thursday.

Another case pending with the U.S. Supreme Court could still affect the Penry case. The high court is considering a Virginia case that questions the constitutionality of executing the mentally retarded. A ruling in that case is expected by June.

During closing arguments Thursday, defense attorneys emphasized the helplessness of Penry, who likes coloring books and says he still believes in Santa Claus.

"This is not the usual case where a defendant comes up with a scam after he gets into trouble with the law," attorney Julia Tarver told jurors. "He's not able to do things you and I do all the time without ever thinking about it."

Prosecutors, however, said they did not believe Penry was mentally retarded and accused his lawyers of trying to raise standards for mental competency in Texas beyond what the law provides.

Death penalty opponents have pointed to Penry as a reason why Texas should prohibit executions of mentally retarded people.

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