Penry v. Lynaugh (Great American Court Cases)
Legal Citation: 492 U.S. 302 (1989)
Johnny Paul Penry
James A. Lynaugh, Director, Texas Department of Corrections
That execution of the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner
Curtis C. Mason
Chief Lawyer for Respondent
Charles A. Palmer
Justices for the Court
Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor (writing for the Court), William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Byron R. White,
Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens
Date of Decision
26 June 1989
The Supreme Court reversed Penry's death sentence.
Penry underscored the point that in capital casesspecially when they involve defendants with diminished mental capacitiesactors which mitigate guilt must be taken into account. At the same time, the case stands for the proposition that the death penalty is...
(The entire section is 1182 words.)
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Penry v. Lynaugh (Supreme Court Drama)
Petitioner: Johnny Paul Penry
Respondent: James A. Lynaugh, Director, Texas Department of Corrections
Petitioner's Claim: That executing mentally retarded criminals is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Curtis C. Mason.
Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Charles A. Palmer, Assistant Attorney General of Texas
Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens
Justices Dissenting: Anthony M. Kennedy, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Byron R. White
Date of Decision: June 26, 1989
Decision: The Supreme Court reversed Penry's conviction and death sentence.
Significance: In Penry, the Supreme Court said it is not cruel and unusual to give the death penalty to mentally retarded criminals. Juries, however, must be allowed to decide whether defendants should get a prison sentence instead of the death penalty because of their mental retardation Johnny Paul Penry was mildly mentally retarded. At age twenty-two, he had the mental age of a six year old child. Brain damage during his birth probably caused Penry's mental retardation. Penry's mother, however, beat and abused Penry when he was a child. The abuse also may have caused Penry's retardation.
On the morning of October 25, 1979, Pamela Carpenter was raped, beaten, and stabbed with a pair of scissors in her home in Livingston, Texas. She died a few hours later during emergency treatment. Before her death, Carpenter described her attacker to two sheriff's deputies. The deputies suspected Penry, who was on parole after raping another woman. Under questioning, Penry admitted to killing Carpenter.
Texas charged Penry with capital murder. At his trial, Penry's lawyer argued that Penry was innocent because he was insane and unable to control his behavior. As an expert witness, Dr. Jose Garcia testified that Penry had a limited mental capacity. Garcia said Penry did not know right from wrong and could not control his behavior to obey the law. The state of Texas presented its own testimony from two psychiatrists. The psychiatrists said that while Penry was mentally retarded, he was not insane and could control his behavior.
The jury rejected Penry's insanity defense and found him guilty of murder. The jury's next step was to decide whether Penry should get life in prison or the death penalty. Penry's lawyer argued that because of Penry's mental retardation and childhood abuse, Penry did not deserve the death penalty. Under Texas law, however, the jury had to give the death penalty if it decided that Penry killed Carpenter on purpose, was not provoked, and probably would commit more crimes.
The jury answered all these questions in Texas's favor and sentenced Penry to death. Relying on the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment, Penry's lawyer appealed the sentence. His lawyer said the jury should have been allowed to give Penry life in prison instead of the death penalty because of his mental retardation and childhood abuse. He also argued that executing mentally retarded people should be banned as cruel and unusual punishment. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and two federal courts rejected these arguments, so he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Executing mentally retarded murderers constitutional
With a 5 decision, the Supreme Court reversed Penry's death sentence. Writing for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the jury should have been allowed to consider mitigating evidence when it determined Penry's sentence. Mitigating evidence is information about a defendant's character and background that suggests he should not get the death penalty.
In Penry's case, the jury might have decided that because of his mental retardation and childhood abuse, Penry deserved less punishment than someone with a happy background and full mental ability. Under Texas's death penalty law, the jury was not allowed to make that decision. That made Penry's death sentence cruel and unusual punishment that had to be reversed.
The Supreme Court, however, decided that executing mentally retarded criminals is not always cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. O'Connor said whether a punishment is cruel and unusual depends on the standards of decency in American society. To determine what those standards are, the Supreme Court looks at American laws. At the time, only two states made it illegal to execute mentally retarded criminals. That meant most Americans did not think such executions were cruel and unusual.
O'Connor said some mentally retarded people who cannot control their behavior should not get the death penalty. Courts can make those decisions in individual cases. When a jury decides that a mentally retarded criminal was able to control his behavior, however, the jury is allowed to give the death sentence. Until more Americans decide it is cruel and unusual, executing mentally retarded criminals does not violate the Eighth Amendment.
When the Supreme Court decided Penry in 1989, only two states with the death penalty made it illegal to execute mentally retarded criminals. After Penry, organizations such as the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC), and the American Psychological Association (APA) formally spoke out against death sentences for the mentally retarded. Ten years later, twelve of the thirty-eight death penalty states outlawed death sentences for the mentally retarded.
If this trend continues, the Supreme Court might someday decide that such executions violate the Eighth Amendment. Meanwhile, thirty-four mentally retarded persons have been executed in the United States since the Supreme Court found the death penalty constitutional in 1976.
Suggestions for further reading
Almonte, Paul. Capital Punishment. New York: Crestwood House, 1991.
Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.
Henson, Burt M., and Ross R. Olney. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty and the Constitution. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1996.
Herda, D.J. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty Case. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Mikula, Mark, and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Great American Court Cases. Vol. II. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.
Nardo, Don. Death Penalty. Lucent Books, 1992.
O'Sullivan, Carol. The Death Penalty: Identifying Propaganda Techniques. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989.
Steins, Richard. The Death Penalty: Is It Justice? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.
Tushnet, Mark. The Death Penalty. New York: Facts on File, 1994.
Wawrose, Susan C. The Death Penalty: Seeking Justice in a Civilized Society. Millbrook Press, 2000.
Winters, Paul A., ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.
Wolf, Robert V. Capital Punishment. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.