Penry v. Lynaugh

LOCATION: Victim's residence

DOCKET NO.: 87-6177
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 492 US 302 (1989)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 1989
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1989

Curtis C. Mason - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Charles A. Palmer - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Penry, a retarded man with the mental age of barely seven years, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. During the trial's proceedings, the jury was not instructed that it could consider the mitigating circumstances of Penry's mental retardation in imposing its sentence.


Was Penry's sentence cruel and unusual punishment?

Media for Penry v. Lynaugh

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 1989 in Penry v. Lynaugh

--Well, the Court hasn't tried to... this Court hasn't tried to define it.

Charles A. Palmer:

Again, the jury was instructed to consider Penry's evidence of mental retardation.

Perhaps we should leave it to the jury.

Charles A. Palmer:

The jury answered all the special issues affirmatively.

Curtis C. Mason:

Well... well, okay.

Charles A. Palmer:

In arguing for a--

Curtis C. Mason:

However you're going to say that.

Mr. Palmer, can I interrupt you because I want to be sure I understand the thrust of your argument?

Curtis C. Mason:


You, you tell us in very unpleasant and disturbing facts, of course, that indicate that this man was a very dangerous man.

Curtis C. Mason:

This Court has said it's evidence about the defendant's character or background or about the facts surrounding the commission of the crime which would make a juror want to consider a sentence less than death appropriate.

And... but are you making the point that as a matter of fact, he was not mentally retarded and therefore we don't have the issue before us of whether there can be an execution of a mentally retarded person?

Curtis C. Mason:

I don't know if that's considered a definition of relevant mitigating evidence or not, but that's essentially what I believe the cases of this Court say is relevant mitigating evidence.

Charles A. Palmer:

--No, Your Honor.

What do you think we mean by all relevant mitigating evidence?

Charles A. Palmer:

I am trying to make the point that regardless whether he fits within a clinical definition of mental retardation, that his mental status is such that he knew what he was doing.

Suppose, for example, a particular defendant has had a childhood in which he was subject to child abuse.

Well, I mean, there are seven-year olds who know what they're doing and nine-year olds who know what they're doing.

Would, would a jury have to consider that?

Is that... does it mean that... Are you willing to accept for purposes of our decision that this is a person with a mental age of seven, eight or nine?

Suppose a particular state says that's... we don't consider that relevant mitigating evidence.

Charles A. Palmer:

Yes, Your Honor.

We think it's only if it somehow impaired the define what's relevant mitigating evidence?

Charles A. Palmer:

I, I--

Curtis C. Mason:

No, not what's relevant mitigating evidence.

I see.

The Court would--

Charles A. Palmer:

--In arguing for a bright line rule--

Curtis C. Mason:

This Court has essentially defined that.

But not that he... but not that he is in all respects like a person seven, eight or nine.