Penry v. Lynaugh

492 U.S. 302
Brief Filed: 9/88
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 1989

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 1.03MB)


Whether mentally retarded individuals possess the moral culpability to be subjected to the death penalty

Index Topic

Death Penalty (mentally retarded), Mentally Ill and Mentally Retarded (Rights of)


Penry, a mentally retarded man, was convicted of rape and murder, for which he was sentenced to death. On direct appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, Penry's lawyer argued for a per se ban on executing the mentally retarded. The court rejected this argument and Penry raised this issue in habeas corpus review. The federal court rejected the argument as did the Fifth Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

APA's Position

The APA's amicus brief argued that: (1) the disabilities that accompany mental retardation are directly relevant to the issue of criminal responsibility and to the choice of punishment for those convicted of crimes; (2) mental retardation is a substantial disability which impairs an individual's capacity to understand and control his actions; (3) mental retardation has long been recognized as relevant to the choice of appropriate punishment for crime; (4) the degree of reduction in moral blameworthiness caused by a defendant's mental retardation renders imposition of the death penalty unconstitutional; (5) punishment by death is reserved for those selected on the basis of their blameworthiness and moral guilt; (6) the death penalty is disproportionate to the degree of culpability of any defendant with mental retardation; (7) a ruling that the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of people with mental retardation is appropriate and necessary; and (8) execution of a person with mental retardation serves no valid penological purpose.


The U.S. Supreme Court held that the jury should have heard instructions that it could consider mental retardation a mitigating circumstance, but imposition of the death penalty with a mentally retarded defendant is not a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment.