WASHINGTON -- Jurors who sentenced a retarded killer to death did not get clear instructions about how to weigh the defendant's mental abilities against the severity of his crime, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The ruling overturned the death sentence of Johnny Paul Penry, whose lawyers claim their client has the mind of a 7-year-old and likes to play with coloring books.
The case, sent back to a federal appeals court, does not answer a larger question about whether execution of the mentally retarded is constitutional. The court has agreed to use a different case to review that question next fall.
The vote was 6-3 on the crucial question of the instructions, although the court was unanimous in ruling that a Texas court properly admitted evidence of Penry's future dangerousness.
Penry was convicted of murdering Pamela Moseley Carpenter in Texas in 1979. She was the sister of former Washington Redskins place-kicker Mark Moseley.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, said the instructions to the jury were "constitutionally inadequate" to protect Penry's rights and did not follow previous court instructions in death penalty cases.
The instructions left no vehicle for expressing the view that Penry did not deserve the death penalty based on mitigating evidence, she said.
The Texas Legislature recently passed a bill banning the execution of mentally retarded persons. Gov. Rick Perry hasn't said whether he will sign it.
The Supreme Court made headlines last fall when it accepted Penry's latest appeal, in part because death penalty opponents say juries too often get inadequate instructions and in part because of Penry's own notoriety.
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