Don’t execute the mentally ill!

by Michael de Brauw

On November 16, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a last-minute stay of execution for Texas death row inmate John Paul Penry, deciding it would hear his case sometime this spring.

Even after Texas’ record-breaking year of atrocities, the killing of Penry would have stood out. Penry, who is on death row for the 1979 rape and murder of Pamela Lee Carpenter, suffers from severe mental retardation. His IQ has been tested at 56; on death row, he colors with crayons and looks at comic books that he can’t read. At the age of 44, he still believes in Santa Claus.

Penry has been almost executed twice, but, according to the New York Times, he “seems uncertain about just what that means.” This November, when Penry heard that his execution was halted, he reportedly asked if he could still have his last meal. In 1989, on a previous execution date, Penry asked his minister — who had just explained the lethal injection process — if he would return afterward to his cell.

Penry’s mental retardation is not the only extenuating circumstance in his case. He was the victim of brutal child abuse. Siblings say Penry was whipped with a belt buckle, scalded with hot water, threatened with castration, locked in a room for extended periods of time, told to drink his own urine and forced to eat his own feces.

The Supreme Court has heard Penry’s case before. In 1989, they issued a landmark decision, ruling that executions of the mentally disabled weren’t cruel and unusual punishment — and therefore not in violation of the 8th Amendment — but that juries had to consider this factor in sentencing. The justices ordered a new trial for Penry, but he was again convicted and sentenced to death. The issue before the court now is whether that jury was given proper instructions.

For abolitionists, Penry’s case is especially significant. First, the growing questioning of the death penalty system has cast a spotlight on the barbaric practice — almost unheard of in any other country in the world — of executing the mentally disabled. The Supreme Court will be under pressure to reverse its earlier decision.

Second, Penry’s case shows that society’s priorities are all wrong. Penry should have been helped before he became violent. Instead, Texas, with some of the worst funded public health resources in the country, has now spent millions securing Penry’s death sentence. As columnist Molly Ivins noted, the murder of Carpenter was a crime, but it won’t be avenged by executing “the man coloring with crayons in his cell.”

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