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"Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached." -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- Herrera v. Collins 506 US 390 1993

Johnny Penry

un-Christian Justice

Johnny Penry

The interpretation of Christianity as represented by the group in charge of the White House goes well beyond "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Rather it sees a vengeful creator who allows mental torture and gruesome execution of its transgressors, even if the violator did not have the capacity to understand its violations. It allows the rich to do what they want, to bend the commandments to accomodate endless greed and to turn truth into hideous lies. It is a stupid kind of fundamentalism, not that different from the extreme forms of Judaism and Islam we see committing atrocities in the Middle East.

The mindless — or perhaps reptilian mind — which embraces such inhumanity is generally uneducated or, at the very least, brainwashed into unreflective reactions to problems more educated minds have offered solutions over the past several centuries. All of the world's great religions have, at their core, a version of what we call the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The challenge to all of us who were fortunate enough to receive an education is to persuade the societies where we hold citizenship to live up to this ethic.
-- Sheila Steele, October 19, 2002

The discussion around Johnny Penry illustrates the challenge — and how we are failing to meet it.

Johnny Penry back on Death Row

CONROE - "It's a good feeling to win. It's hard to believe we've done it again. We've gotten the death penalty again, "Bruce Carpenter said. "My family is grateful and so is the Moseley family." Late Wednesday, a Montgomery County jury sentenced 46-year-old Johnny Paul Penry to death by lethal injection for the Oct. 25, 1979 rape and murder of Carpenter's wife, Pamela Moseley Carpenter.

This was the third jury to give Penry the death penalty.

"I appreciate the jury for coming out with the verdict they came out with," Carpenter said, adding, "You have to have faith in the people. The people on that jury are just like me and you. "Now we can go on with our lives and remember Pam and know that she was cheated out of life. She was very much a part of my life and we were very much in love," Carpenter said.

Testimony began June 10 in the nearly-23-year-old case in which Penry has twice been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1979 rape and murder of Carpenter, then 22, in her Livingston home. Penry's death sentence has twice been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, most recently in June 2001 in a 6-3 ruling.

The court held that instructions given by the judge in Penry's 1990 trial failed to give the jury an adequate opportunity to consider circumstances such as his alleged mental disabilities, violating the eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel and un-usual punishment.

258th State District Judge Elizabeth Coker moved the case to Montgomery County earlier this year on a change of venue. Defense attorneys alleged there had been too much pre-trial publicity for Penry to receive a fair trial in Polk County. A Conroe jury ruled on April 11 that Penry was competent to stand trial.

Family pleased with verdict

"I'm really happy that he got the death penalty. Penry got what he deserves. Now we just need to get him on that execution table," Carpenter said. "I just hope this ruling will be upheld. The scary part is waiting to see what the Supreme Court does, and if they slap us in the face again," Carpenter said.

"I'm still angry with the Supreme Court for keeping this case going on and on. We did the same thing in '90 that we've done the last four weeks. It's time to put a halt to this guy," Carpenter said.

"I think Joe Price was excellent and Lee Hon was superb and I congratulate them. I really appreciate all that they've done, and Bill Willis and Ron Dunnahoe (the state's investigators)," Carpenter said. Rossi Moseley, Pam's mother, agreed.

"We've received a lot of support and we appreciate everyone's concern and their prayers," Moseley said.

"We're just hoping that this will be the last one. We'll be happy when it's all over," she said.

Defense to appeal

Will the defense appeal the ruling?

"Naturally, you bet," Defense Attorney John Wright, of Huntsville, said. "Naturally, it's disappointing," Wright said of the verdict. "We had the wrong jury. We heard the wrong testimony. There should have been a separate proceeding on mental retardation."

"Once she (the judge) decided she was going to go forward, she had to make up the rules," Wright said. In a recent 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court banned execution of the mentally retarded, calling it cruel and unusual punishment. However, the high court offered no guidance as to how the ruling should be carried out, other than to say it would be left to the individual states.

The ruling came on June 20, midway through the trial. Citing the federal order she was already under, Coker continued with the trial.

Closing arguments heard

"The effort we make today, 23 years later, pales in comparison to her effort that day," Polk County Assistant District Attorney Lee Hon said, as a photograph of a smiling Pam was projected on the monitors in the courtroom. Hon read an excerpt from Penry's confession in which Penry repeatedly referred to Pam as a "chick" and said he was going to her house to get "a piece." Hon said the confession provides "a tremendous amount of insight" into Penry and that "the callous way he describes her speaks volumes about the kind of man he is." Calling him a full blown anti-social personality disorder and a sexual predator, Hon said that Penry is "a very high risk" and that it was "high time" a jury "had the opportunity to put to bed whether or not this man is mentally retarded."

Placing an autopsy photograph of Pam on the courtroom monitors, Trinity County District Attorney Joe Price asked the jury, "Can you imagine having a child go through what Pam did and having to think about it every day for the rest of your life?

"That man is not mentally retarded. He's never been mentally retarded and he never will be mentally retarded," Price said. "It's smoke and mirrors. It's a myth that has been going on for 23 years and it's a myth that has been perpetuated by the media.

"He's a faker, a manipulator, a sadist and a sexual predator. He shows no remorse, except maybe for himself. He's dangerous. He always will be and he'll never change. He has left a wake of victims like a cruise ship," Price said.

"The death penalty is not something I seek lightly, nor Lee Hon, nor John Holleman. But there comes a time when you have to toe the line and seek justice and that is the only justice out there," Price said.

"He (Penry) believes in the death penalty. He gave this woman the death penalty. He believes in cruel and unusual punishment. He gave her cruel and unusual punishment," Price continued.

"It's time for justice in this case. It's time for some small amount of closure that these families can live with," Price said. "It is time to bring this circus to an end."

Defense responds

Defense Attorney Julia Tarver, of New York, said the death penalty in this particular case is not the appropriate punishment, "not for a man with his mental deficiencies, his history of child abuse and torture.

"Of course it was wrong. It was very wrong and we know that. We do believe that Johnny should be punished. But what you're here to decide is which of two very severe punishments will be given," Tarver said. "Even if you found some horrible things about the case, there is some room for mercy. "Johnny Paul Penry has been diagnosed mentally retarded since he was a young boy, long before he could be accused of faking," Tarver said. "Johnny's been given 10 tests, from ages 7 to 46. Every time, he's scored in the mentally retarded stage. When does he do the best? When he's on trial for his life," Tarver said.

"Every score is within four points and there's a five point margin of error. You'd have to believe he's a genius to fake it that well. "Even if you don't want to believe the IQ tests, even if you don't believe the 27 professionals, you have to wonder about a 19-year-old boy that can't play kickball with 9-year-olds," she said. "There can't be any doubt in your mind that Johnny Penry was mentally retarded in 1979 and is today."

Tarver said the most tragic part of Penry's life is that he never got the love and support he especially needed.

"Not only did Johnny have a broken brain, but he had a mentally ill mother. She was the Andrea Yates of her time, but a million times worse," Tarver said, adding, "Unfortunately, in his case, nature and nurture dealt Johnny a double-whammy."