U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Federal Habeas Review: The Supreme Court's Failure to Apply Williams Consistently

NCJ Number
The Journal of Criminal Law and Crimiology Volume: 93 Issue: 1 Dated: Fall 2002 Pages: 75-120
Mary Connell Grubb
Matthew Burke
Date Published
46 pages
This paper examines the constitutionality of the death penalty as applied to the mentally retarded through a review of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Texas 2001 case of Penry v. Johnson regarding jury instructions and a petitioner’s fifth amendment rights and the role of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Penry v. Johnson (2001), the Supreme Court reviewed for the second time the case of petitioner John Paul Henry, a mentally retarded man convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Texas jury. The original capital case (Penry I) was heard in 1989. In 2001, the Supreme Court reversed in part the lower court’s decision with regard to jury instructions that failed to provide jurors an opportunity to consider mitigating evidence. However, it affirmed in part that the petitioner’s fifth amendment rights had not been violated when a psychiatric report with statement’s regarding the petitioner’s future dangerousness was admitted into evidence. Again, Penry was found guilty and again sentenced to death. The case then moved to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit where a Federal writ of habeas corpus was denied, affirming the district court’s denial and adjudged under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Justice O’Connor rendered an opinion on the procedural mechanism by which the case reached the Federal court and affirmed that the Fifth Circuit properly applied Federal law regarding the admission into testimony a psychiatric report and improperly applied Federal law in allowing jurors to consider mitigating circumstances in the sentencing phase of a capital case. Justice O’Conner found that jury instructions given at Penry’s second trial did not comply with Penry I (1989) and were therefore objectively unreasonable. Justice O’Connor wrote the opinion in Penry I in 1989 and again in Penry 2001. It was seen that her task as a Federal habeas review court was overshadowed by her interest in adjudicating the constitutionality of Penry’s second trial on merits. This sent a mixed signal to lower courts. The opinion leaves the States the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentence and provides no process for ensuring that the mentally retarded are not executed. This paper argues that the Supreme Court reached the proper conclusion with regard to the fifth amendment claim, but failed to apply the same skill in reasoning with regard to the adequacy of jury instructions.