Penry v. Lynaugh

Penry v. Lynaugh

492 U.S. 302 (1989)

Facts and Procedural History:

Petitioner was sentenced to death for capital murder in Texas. He was found competent to stand trial, although a psychologist testified that he was mildly to moderately retarded and had the mental age of a 6 1/2 -year-old. The psychiatric testimony showed that petitioner suffered from a combination of organic brain damage and moderate retardation, which resulted in poor impulse control and an inability to learn from experience. The evidence also indicated that he had been abused as a child. The State introduced testimony that petitioner was legally sane but had an antisocial personality. The jury rejected petitioner's insanity defense and found him guilty of capital murder.

At the penalty phase, the trial court rejected petitioner's request for jury instructions defining the terms in the special issues and authorizing a grant of mercy based upon the existence of mitigating circumstances.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioner's contentions that his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment, because the jury was not adequately instructed to consider all of his mitigating evidence and because the special issues' terms were not defined in such a way that the jury could consider and give effect to that evidence in answering them; and, and further his contention that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a mentally retarded person. The federal District Court and the Court of Appeals upheld petitioner's death sentence in habeas corpus proceedings. Although it denied him relief, the Court of Appeals nevertheless found considerable merit in petitioner's claim that his mitigating evidence of mental retardation and childhood abuse could not be given effect by the jury, under the instructions given, in answering the special issues.

Issues Presented to the Court:

1. Was petitioner sentenced to death in violation of the Eighth Amendment because the jury was not instructed that it could consider and give effect to his mitigating evidence in imposing its sentence?

2. Does the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibit Penry's execution because he is mentally retarded?

Outcome of the Case:

With respect to the first issue, the Court held that because of the absence of instructions the jury was not provided with a vehicle for expressing its "reasoned moral response" to the evidence in answering the three special issues and rendering its sentencing decision. Furthermore, because the punishment imposed should be directly related to the personal culpability of the defendant, the sentencer must be allowed to consider and give effect to mitigating evidence relevant to a defendant's background, character, and crime.

As to the second issue presented to this court since the matter was on an appeal of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus the Court held that as a threshold matter, a new rule would not be applied or announced in cases on collateral review. Defendant's request that mental retardation be a bar to capital punishment would have been a new rule, however it falls within one of the exceptions to exclusion of new rules.

The Eighth Amendment does not categorically prohibit the execution of mentally retarded capital murderers of petitioner's reasoning ability. It cannot be said that all mentally retarded people of petitioner's ability-by virtue of their mental retardation alone, and apart from any individualized consideration of their personal responsibility-inevitably lack the capacity to act with the degree of culpability associated with the death penalty. Moreover, the concept of "mental age" is an insufficient basis for a categorical Eighth Amendment rule, since it is imprecise, does not adequately account for individuals' varying experiences and abilities, ceases to change after a person reaches the chronological age of 15 or 16, and could have a disempowering effect if applied to retarded persons in other areas of the law, such as the opportunity to enter contracts or to marry.

The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.