February 16, 2008 / 7:51 PM / 12 years ago

Guilty plea ends long death-penalty appeal saga

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Johnny Paul Penry, whose Texas death sentence was overturned three times in a 25-year, precedent-setting series of appeals, has pleaded guilty and been given three life sentences, his lawyer said on Saturday.

The deal ends a long legal battle over whether low IQ and mitigating circumstances such as child abuse could exempt someone from execution. Penry’s case changed U.S. law to let juries consider such factors, said attorney John E. Wright.

“The fact that we settled our case doesn’t change the impact of precedents made earlier,” said Wright, who represented Penry throughout the legal saga.

Penry, 51, pleaded guilty on Friday to raping and murdering Pamela Carpenter in her Livingston, Texas, home in 1979. He also pleaded guilty to two separate cases of kidnapping and assault, Wright said.

State District Judge Fred Edwards gave Penry three consecutive life sentences as agreed between Wright and Polk County District Attorney Lee Hon.

The prosecutor said a fourth death-penalty trial would have been costly, difficult and vulnerable to another appeal. Wright said he could have fought the second and third life sentences on various legal grounds, but he wanted to avoid risking another death sentence.

“We were willing to do a lot of things we wouldn’t ordinarily do to save his life,” Wright said.

The Supreme Court overturned death sentences for Penry twice, in 1989 and 2001, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voided a third one in 2005, all on issues of how juries should consider child abuse and low IQ before imposing death.

Penry received dozens of cigarette burns on his legs and groin as a child, and tests showed his IQ was abnormally low, below 70, Wright said.

Some constitutional issues arising from Penry’s case remain, Wright said. The Texas statute intended to correct the errors cited by courts defines mitigation too narrowly and puts the burden of proof improperly on the defense, he said.

“There’s a lot of Penry progeny out there still,” Wright said, referring to other cases that raise those issues.

Penry remains in prison, and Wright said he will be there until he dies. He said he hoped Penry would be placed in a unit for elderly prisoners. “Somebody that’s committed this type of crime and is as low-functioning as Johnny is likely to be abused by other inmates,” Wright said.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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