Penry v. Johnson
Penry v. Johnson, , was a United States Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 case decided in 2001. The case concerned whether instructions given to a Texas
Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

 jury were constitutionally adequate to emphasize the mitigating factor in sentencing of mental retardation. The Texas courts had determined the sentencing instructions were consistent with prior Supreme Court jurisprudence, but the Court in a divided decision reversed, finding the sentencing instructions insufficient. This was the second time Penry's case made it to the Supreme Court.


In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Penry v. Lynaugh
Penry v. Lynaugh
Penry v. Lynaugh, , sanctioned the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders because the Court determined executing the mentally retarded was not "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment...

that Johnny Paul Penry had been sentenced to death in violation of the Eighth Amendment after finding that Texas' special instruction questions
Jury instructions
Jury instructions are the set of legal rules that jurors should follow when the jury is deciding a civil or criminal case. Jury instructions are given to the jury by the jury instructor, who usually reads them aloud to the jury...

 did not permit the jury to consider mitigating evidence
Mitigating evidence
Mitigating evidence is evidence that is provided in order to try to establish the presence of mitigating circumstances. The presence of mitigating circumstances can reduce the punishment imposed for the offense. The case of Oregon v...

 involving his mental retardation. On retrial in 1990, Penry was again found guilty of murder
Murder is the unlawful killing, with malice aforethought, of another human being, and generally this state of mind distinguishes murder from other forms of unlawful homicide...

. The defense again put on evidence regarding Penry's mental impairments. Ultimately, a psychiatric evaluation, which stated that Penry would be dangerous to others if released, prepared at the request of Penry's former counsel, was cited. Upon submission to the jury, the trial judge instructed the jury to determine Penry's sentence by answering the same special questions in the first trial. Additionally, the trial judge gave a supplemental instruction on mitigating evidence. The court sentenced Penry to death in connection with the jury's answers to the special issues. In affirming the verdict, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the court of last resort for all criminal matters in the State of Texas, United States. The Court, which is based in the Supreme Court Building in Downtown Austin, is composed of a Presiding Judge and eight judges....

 rejected Penry's claims that the admission of language from the psychiatric evaluation violated his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination
Self-incrimination is the act of accusing oneself of a crime for which a person can then be prosecuted. Self-incrimination can occur either directly or indirectly: directly, by means of interrogation where information of a self-incriminatory nature is disclosed; indirectly, when information of a...

, and that the jury instructions were constitutionally inadequate because they did not permit the jury to consider his specific mitigating evidence. Penry's petitions for state and federal habeas corpus
Habeas corpus
is a writ, or legal action, through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention. The remedy can be sought by the prisoner or by another person coming to his aid. Habeas corpus originated in the English legal system, but it is now available in many nations...

 relief failed.

Opinion of the Court

The decision of the Court, authored by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor is an American jurist who was the first female member of the Supreme Court of the United States. She served as an Associate Justice from 1981 until her retirement from the Court in 2006. O'Connor was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981...

, was in two parts. Firstly, the Court was unanimous in finding that the inclusion of the psychiatric report was constitutional. O'Connor expressed "considerable doubt" that the psychiatric report "even if erroneous, had a 'substantial and injurious effect'" on the outcome of the trial. However, the Court split 6-3 on whether the supplemental jury instructions on mitigating evidence was constitutionally adequate; the majority holding they were not. "Any realistic assessment of the manner in which the supplemental instruction operated would therefore lead to the same conclusion we reached in Penry I," wrote Justice O'Connor "'A reasonable juror could well have believed that there was no vehicle for expressing the view that Penry did not deserve to be sentenced to death based upon his mitigating evidence.'" Therefore, the case was sent back to Texas for renewed sentencing. Justice Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Succeeding Thurgood Marshall, Thomas is the second African American to serve on the Court....

 wrote a dissent as to this part of the decision, joined by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist
William Rehnquist
William Hubbs Rehnquist was an American lawyer, jurist, and political figure who served as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States and later as the 16th Chief Justice of the United States...

 and Justice Scalia
Antonin Scalia
Antonin Gregory Scalia is an American jurist who serves as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As the longest-serving justice on the Court, Scalia is the Senior Associate Justice...

. Thomas explained that he disagreed with the majority "...because I believe the most recent sentencing court gave the jurors an opportunity to consider the evidence Penry presented". He concluded by attacking the standards the majority used to define proper sentencing instructions, saying the Court was sending "mixed signals to the Texas courts."

Subsequently to this case, the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia
Atkins v. Virginia
Atkins v. Virginia, , is a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 6-3 that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments.-The case:...

that execution of persons who are mentally retarded is unconstitutional. This functionally prevented Penry from receiving the death penalty.

The decision was part of a series of decisions on the death penalty, all dealing with the "national consensus" on the question.

External links

* Oral Argument audio at the OYEZ Project
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