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Fri Jul 27, 2012, 04:28 PM


Chilling article about Johnny Penry, the mentally impaired death row inmate.


Even on death row, Johnny Paul Penry is an outcast, shunned by other inmates because of his learning disabilities. Penry, whose IQ has been tested at 56, spends his days colouring with crayons and looking at comics he cannot read, his lawyers say.Now, after 20 years on death row, he is due to be executed this Thursday by lethal injection. Penry, 44, seems uncertain about just what that means. "The only thing what 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 window on death row in Livingston, Texas. "I think it's a cruel thing to do, to put me to sleep."

He is to die for the 1979 rape and murder of Pamela Mosley Carpenter, 22, the daughter of a prominent local family, who was decorating her new home when he forced his way in. Penry was on parole after serving two years for an earlier rape.

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, relatives said. According to family members and neighbours, when he was a child, his mother burned him in a scalding bath, locked him in his room without food or water and forced him to eat his own faeces and drink his own urine.

The case has attracted widespread attention. In 1989 it was the subject of a landmark ruling by the US supreme court which said it was not cruel and unusual punishment to execute those with learning disabilities. But a sharply divided court said that a jury had to consider evidence of such disabilities when deciding whether to impose the death sentence, and it ordered a new trial for Penry.

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

Now, although his lawyers have appealed to the supreme court, arguing that the judge's instructions to the jury 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 case only once in the last five years. A wide range of individuals and organisations have asked the board to spare Penry's life.

Describing it as an "urgent humanitarian appeal", the European Union wrote that executions of people with learning disabilities "degrade the dignity and worth of the human person". The American Bar Association, which has no policy on the death penalty in general, wrote that such executions were "unacceptable in a civilised world".

In their arguments to the board, the state and Penry's lawyers reflect opposing attitudes to the death penalty. Almost half of the state's brief is devoted to graphic details of the crime, and it concludes by saying Penry should be executed "for the sake of Pamela Carpenter".

In contrast, Penry's lawyers barely mention the crime or the victim, and they ask for mercy for the defendant. The victim's family "has suffered an unspeakable loss and the hearts of everyone on the defence team go out to them", his lawyer, Robert Smith -whose New York law firm is representing Penry without a fee -wrote in his brief to the pardons board.

"The question before you now, however, is the appropriate punishment for Penry," Mr Smith said. "There is no societal retribution in killing a person with the mind of a six-year-old."

Of the 38 states which have capital punishment, 13 bar the execution of people with learning disabilities, as does federal law. The classification covers people with an IQ of below 70 who are unable to adapt to daily life. Those who oppose the execution of people with such disabilities say they lack the moral culpability to justify their receiving the ultimate punishment.

Last year, the Texas legislature rejected a bill that would have barred such executions. One of the prosecutors in the Penry case, William Lee Hon, an assistant district attorney, testified against the bill.

In an interview, Mr Hon said that he did not accept that Penry had learning disabilities, and he did not understand how the supreme court, in its 1989 opinion, agreed with such a finding. Mr Hon said that Penry was a "sociopath", and that he had been sent to schools for people with learning disabilities merely because he was "an uncontrollable child".

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.

Penry's childhood has been described by his two sisters, an aunt, and a neighbour in court documents as one of unrelenting abuse 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 Penry. "She would beat him with anything in sight. 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 her brother out of school in the first grade because he had embarrassed her by getting in trouble climbing a flagpole.

Because Penry would wander around the neighbourhood, 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 him drink his urine out of the toilet."

Ms Gonzales added that as a child she had also seen her mother force Penry to eat his own faeces.

Mr Hon said he did not believe the accounts of the boy's abuse because he thought family members were not telling the truth, quoting their testimony that Penry had been scalded in a bath by his mother. The prosecutor said that Mrs Penry, who is now dead, had testified she left her son in the sink near a hot water heater, and that he had grabbed a hose line and sprayed himself.

Mr Hon said he believed the mother, adding: "Self-mutilation, even at that early age, would not surprise me."

When Penry was nine, his IQ was 56, according to a state psychologist's report. "John seems so seriously impaired that he is incapable of intellectually functioning at anything like an age-appropriate level," the report said.

At 12, Penry was institutionalised at the Mexia State School for the Mentally Retarded. When staff 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 that staff were told: "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, which required him to match drawings with the corresponding words. He identified a door as a dress, a chicken as a drum, and a hat as a flag, according to the test.

When he was 22, 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.

Penry said he had meant no harm to the woman he had raped, the psychiatrist wrote in his report, but that "he had never had a woman before and he wanted to see what it would be like".

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

Penry said he knew that some inmates avoided him. "I have noticed 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?'"

He said he spent 21 hours a day locked in his cell and one hour out of it. When asked how many hours there were 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 closed his eyes, clenched his fists and concentrated before replying: "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."

He went on: "I walk back and forth in my house and wonder why does it have to be me."

In another part of the interview, 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 it's not true. I got to where I do believe there's a Santa Claus."

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