PUBLIC AI Index: AMR 51/157/00
EXTRA 81/00 Death penalty / Legal concern 25 October 2000
USA (Texas)John Paul Penry, aged 44
John Paul Penry is scheduled to be executed in Texas on 16 November 2000.
He was sentenced to death in 1980, and again at a retrial in 1990, for the
murder of Pamela Moseley Carpenter in 1979. John Paul Penry has serious mental
impairment and suffered a childhood of appalling torture and abuse.
John Penry’s first death sentence was overturned by the US Supreme Court in
1989. In a landmark decision, Penry v Lynaugh, the Court ruled that it was
not unconstitutional to execute a mentally retarded individual as long as the
jury had been able to consider the mitigating value of such impairment. The
Court ruled that Penry’s 1980 jury had not been able to do so because of the
rigid format of the Texas capital sentencing scheme. As a result, the Texas
legislature amended the scheme, but this change had not come into force by
the time of Penry’s 1990 retrial, at which he was again sentenced to death.
The claim that Penry’s second jury had been restricted like his first was
rejected by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in June 2000, although
one of the three judges dissented. The defence has appealed to the US Supreme
Court. See Beyond Reason: The imminent execution of John Paul Penry (AMR
51/195/99, December 1999), available at www.amnesty.org.
In 1989, a month before the Supreme Court’s Penry ruling, the United Nations
adopted a resolution recommending that member states eliminate the death penalty
“for persons suffering from mental retardation or extremely limited mental
competence, whether at the stage of sentence or execution” (UN Economic and
Social Council Resolution 1989/64). In April 2000, the UN Commission on Human
Rights called for an end to the use of the death penalty against anyone “suffering
from any form of mental disorder”.
John Penry’s 18-year-old mother suffered a nervous breakdown after his birth,
which had almost killed her. After her return from mental hospital, she subjected
him to vicious abuse for much of the next decade. She would burn him with
cigarettes all over his body and beat him severely, breaking his left arm several
times. His sister has testified that the beatings were “practically an everyday
affair... Belt buckles, belts, it didn’t matter, brooms, toy brooms, sticks
and mop sticks, anything she could lay her hands on; or her feet, stomp on
him and stuff, didn’t matter to her... He would look at her wrong or something
and she would just threaten to scratch his little eyeballs out... She would
put her nails on his face and stuff, and we would stop her.” When John was
four, his mother dipped him in scalding water in the kitchen sink, causing
permanent scarring. Another time she tried to drown him in the bath. She would
often lock him in a room alone for long periods, where he would be forced to
soil himself. At times she would make him eat his own faeces and drink his
urine. One time, she took a knife and threatened to cut off his penis for wetting
his bed. Neighbours would later tell of the toddler’s daily “terrible, terrible
By the age of 10, it was apparent that John Penry was mentally retarded. He
had been unable to learn in school and never finished the first grade (age
6-7). Various institutions made various diagnoses of his impairment, including
“organic brain syndrome with mental retardation and behavioural disturbances”
and “organic brain syndrome with psychosis due to repeated trauma and mild
retardation”. His Intelligence Quotient (IQ) scores ranged between 50 and 63.
To this day, he can barely read or write.