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From New York Times, November 12, 2000,  article by Raymond Bonner and Sara Rimer.

Mentally Retarded Man Facing Texas Execution Draws Wide Attention.

LIVINGSTON, Tex. -- Even on death row, Johnny Paul Penry is an outcast, shunned by other inmates because of his mental retardation. Mr. Penry, whose I.Q. has been tested by state authorities at 56, spends his days coloring with crayons and looking at comic books he cannot read, his lawyers say. He says he still believes in Santa Claus. Now, after 20 years on death row, he is scheduled to be executed on Thursday by lethal injection.

   Mr. Penry, 44, seems uncertain about just what that means. "The only thing I know is that they will have a needle in my arm, just like an IV, that's going to put me to sleep," he said in a recent hour-long interview from behind a thick glass window on death row here. "I think it's a cruel thing to do, to put me to sleep."...

   Mr. Penry is to die for the 1979 rape and murder of Pamela Mosley Carpenter, 22, who was decorating her new home at the time he forced his way in and attacked her. Mr. Penry was on parole after serving two years for an earlier rape. Mrs. Carpenter was the daughter of a prominent family in Livingston and sang in the choir at her church.

Mr. Penry, who rode to the crime scene on his bicycle, was the son of an absent father who taunted him as retarded and a mother who tormented him because she considered him illegitimate, family members said. When he was a child, family members and neighbors said, his mother burned him in a scalding bath, locked him in his room for long periods without food or water and forced him to eat his own feces and drink his own urine.

Mr.. Penry's  case has attracted national and international attention. In 1989 it was the subject of a landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court -- Penry vs. Lynaugh -- that said it was not cruel and unusual punishment, and thus it was not in violation of the Eighth Amendment, to execute the mentally retarded. But a sharply divided court said that a jury had to consider evidence of mental retardation when deciding whether to impose the death sentence, and it ordered a new trial for Mr. Penry.


At his second trial, Mr. Penry was again sentenced to death.

Now, although his lawyers have appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the judge's jury instructions at the second trial were defective, the real battle is for the hearts of the 18 people on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has granted clemency in a capital (death penalty) case only once in the last five years. A wide range of individuals and organizations, including the European Union and the American Bar Association, have asked the board to spare Mr. Penry's life.

In their arguments to the board, the state attorneys and Mr. Penry's  lawyers reflect opposing attitudes toward the death penalty. Almost half of the state's brief is devoted to graphic details of the crime, and it concludes Mr. Penry should be executed "for the sake of Pamela Carpenter." The defense team barely mention the crime or the victim, but argue against the appropriateness of execution in this case. "There is no societal retribution in killing a person with the mind of a six year old".

One of the prosecutors in the Penry case, William Hon, said in an interview that he did not accept that Mr. Penry was mentally retarded, and he did not understand how the Supreme Court, in its 1989 opinion, had accepted that he was. Mr. Hon said that Mr. Penry was a "sociopath," and that he had been sent to schools for the mentally retarded not because he was mentally retarded, but because he was an "uncontrollable child."

Mr. Penry was one of four siblings. His mother was 18 when he was born, and she was placed in a mental institution in Oklahoma for nearly a year after his birth, according to state records. Mr. Penry's childhood has been described by his two sisters, an Aunt, and a neighbor in court documents as one of unrelenting abuse suffered at the hands of his mother.

"We were all abused, but he was abused the worst," said one of the sisters, Sally Belinda Potts Gonzales, who is two years younger than Mr. Penry. "She would beat him with anything in sight," Ms. Gonzales said in an interview in her modest Houston home. "She would threaten to gouge his eyeballs out with her long fingernails. She would threaten to cut off his private parts with a butcher knife."

She said that her mother had taken Johnny out of school in the first grade, because he embarrassed her by getting in trouble climbing up a flagpole. Because he would wander around the neighborhood, his mother locked him in his room for long periods without food or water. "When the poor kid got thirsty," his sister said, "she'd make his drink his urine out of the toilet." Ms. Gonzales added that as a child she had seen her mother force Johnny to eat his own feces.

Mr. Hon, the county prosecutor, said he did not believe the accounts of the boy's abuse because he thought family members were not telling the truth. Mr. Hon cited their testimony that Johnny had been scalded in a bath by his mother. The prosecutor said that Mrs. Penry had testified she left Johnny in the sink near a hot water heater, and that he grabbed a hose line from the water heater and sprayed himself.   Mr. Hon said he believed Mrs. Penry, who is now dead, adding, "Self-mutilation, even at that early age, wouldn't surprise me."

When Mr. Penry was nine his I.Q. was 56, according to a state psychologists' report. "Johnny seems so seriously impaired that he is incapable of functioning at anything like an age-appropriate level," the psychologists wrote.

At 12, Johnny was institutionalized at the Mexia State School for the Mentally Retarded. When staff members gave him a haircut, according to a school report, they noticed many small scars on his head. When he was asked about them, the report stated, he said, "They were from cuts made by a large belt buckle which his mother used when whipping him."

At 15, he was given a reading test at Mexia, which required him to match drawings with the corresponding words. He identified a door as a dress, chicken as a drum, a hat as a flag, according to the test.

When he was 22, Mr. Penry was convicted of rape. A state psychiatrist found that he was still a bed-wetter, that his judgment was "severely impaired" and that he had little regard for others or even himself. Mr. Penry said he had meant no harm to the woman he had raped, the state psychiatrist wrote in his report, but that "he had never had a woman before, and wanted to see what it would be like."

Mr. Penry is not unaware that people say he is mentally retarded. "They say I have the mentality of a kid, but I don't know what that means," he said in the prison interview. "I want to learn so bad. I wanted to be just like you and everybody else. I can't. I'm very slow."

Mr. Penry said he knew that some of the other inmates avoided him. "I have noticed that some of the guys don't like talking to me because I can't carry on no conversation like most people," he said. "I'm not on their level. I ask them, 'What, do I bore you?'"

Mr. Penry said he spent 21 hours a day locked in his cell, and one hour out of it. When asked how many hours there are in a day he said, "I don't know, I think six." Asked how high he could count, he counted on his fingers to 10, then he closed his eyes tightly, clenched his fists and concentrated hard before he replied, "To 40, I think."

As his execution date approaches, he said: "I'm scared. Sometimes I take my head and pound it against the wall so bad that it hurts. I walk back and forth in my house and wonder why does it have to be me."

In another part of the interview Mr. Penry talked about his belief in Santa Claus.

"They keep talking about Santa Claus being down in the North Pole," he said. "Some people say its not true. I got to where I do believe there's a Santa Claus."


(Update, March 2003 .... A Texas judge has removed Penry's  lawyer, John Wright, who has successfully argued two appeals of death sentences against Penry before the U.S. Supreme Court and was appealing a third death sentence. The judge, in what many claim is an attempt to ensure Penry's execution, has assigned a former assistant to the prosecution to his case. The judge's action is being appealed.)