ACLU Welcomes Supreme Court Reversal of Death Sentence for Man with Mental Retardation

June 4, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–The American Civil Liberties Union welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision today to reverse the death sentence of Johnny Paul Penry, a mentally retarded inmate.

However, the ACLU emphasized that today’s decision only reinforces the need for a total ban on the execution of the mentally retarded, an issue that will be before the Court next fall.

In an opinion written by Justice O’Connor, the Court held for a second time that Penry’s jury had been denied the opportunity to fully consider his mental retardation as a mitigating factor before imposing a death sentence.

“The Court’s ruling highlights the difficulty that the criminal justice system has experienced in fairly assessing the guilt and moral responsibility of mentally retarded defendants in capital cases,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project.

“The Court has taken an important step,” she added, “but it is only a first step. As an increasing number of states and the vast majority of nations around the world recognize, execution of the mentally retarded is incompatible with the standards of a civilized society regardless of the procedures used.”

Indeed, as the majority observed in a footnote to their ruling, even Texas — a state known for its enthusiastic embrace of the death penalty — has approved such a ban in a bill that is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

The ACLU believes that the Court can and should acknowledge this emerging consensus next fall when it reviews the case of Eugene McCarver, another mentally retarded inmate whose execution was stayed by the Supreme Court only hours before he was scheduled to be put to death in March.

The decision in Penry v. Johnson is available online at

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