Every time I get the chance, I use my extended break between semesters to take a road trip through Mississippi where I was born, and then back to Texas where I grew up. Visiting friends and family and seeing my old childhood homes gives me a chance to think about where I’m going by reflecting on where I’ve been. This year’s road trip just happened to conclude on December 30th, which was the 20th anniversary of an important milestone in a larger personal journey. It was the day I interviewed John Paul Penry on Texas death row just a few miles from my parents’ house and just thirteen days before his scheduled execution.
John Paul Penry was a vicious rapist and killer. His first rape put him in prison, but he was paroled after just two years. While on parole, he committed his second rape, which concluded with his murder of the young victim. He beat her so badly that he burst both of her kidneys. He then finished her off by shoving a pair of scissors into her heart. When he was later convicted and sentenced to die, his lawyers argued that he was mentally retarded and thus should not be executed per the Eight Amendment ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
After Penry’s case had wound its way through the justice system for twenty years, which included two trips to the Supreme Court, his execution date was reset for the third and what appeared to be final time. My dad had taken a retirement job in the very building where Texas executions took place. Furthermore, our neighbor happened to be the warden. Thus, when I expressed interest in interviewing Penry prior to his scheduled execution, it was not hard for me to make the arrangements.
My goal was pretty simple when I arrived on death row on that second to last morning of the 20th century. I simply wanted to gather important information so I could do a better job of teaching the case to my students. I had been teaching the Penry v. Lynaugh ruling (the one issued by the Supreme Court in 1989) for several years because it addressed some important constitutional and philosophical questions. I had no idea that the interview would affect me so personally.
As I spoke with Penry, we broached the topic of his alleged history of abuse at the hands of his mother. During that portion of the interview, I was convinced of two things. One was that some of his claims were valid. The other was that some of his claims had been manufactured in order to win sympathy in the court of public opinion, as well as leniency in a court of law.
Similarly, as we broached the topic of his claims of mental retardation, I was also convinced of two things. One was that there was objective evidence gathered prior to his criminal career, which demonstrated a clear pattern of at least mild mental retardation. The other was that his claims of mental deficiency had been exaggerated in order to win sympathy in the court of public opinion, as well as leniency in a court of law.
After I had gathered all of the information I was seeking, I stood up and placed my hand on the glass in order to do the so-called death row handshake with Penry – just as he placed his hand on the other side of the glass. That was the moment that something surreal happened. Shortly after telling me he was scared of being executed, he recited John 3:16 to me to the best of his limited cognitive ability.
Naturally, I had to ask Penry whether he had actually read the Bible. He indicated that after learning how to read and write on death row, he had read the entire Bible over the course of his many years as a condemned man. After he told me that, I turned and walked away. As I left the prison, I concluded that Penry had read the Bible out of sheer boredom over the course of two decades, but there were clear reasons to doubt that he had any kind of legitimate conversion experience.
As I made the drive back to my parents’ house, I was overwhelmed by the emotion of the day. Simply imagining a brutal rape or murder is overwhelming, but the details of Penry’s miserable life struck to the core of me as well. To compound things, there is just something sobering about being on death row. Even my dog knew I was upset when I got home. He followed me around and kept sticking his head under my hand to remind me that petting him would put me at ease.
But it was difficult for me to feel at ease knowing that a convicted murderer and rapist with substantial mental limitations had read the Bible while I had not. After all, I was already a tenured professor. How could I call myself educated having not read the most important book ever put in print? That question led me to make one of the most important decisions I ever made in my life. I was going to go home, buy a copy of the Bible, and read it from cover to cover in the coming year.
The rest of the story is fairly well documented. I decided to take six breaks and to read six apologetic books as I worked my way through the King James Version. When I finished, I converted and thus became the only conservative Christian in a department full of tenured Marxists. Although the transformation led to a lot of conflict and eventually seven years of litigation in federal court, it was certainly worth it. I had gone there on a mission to help save John Penry from death row, but I ended up being the one who had his death sentence commuted.
This story is not my testimony. It is not even about me. It is about those who consider their own past sins to be an irreversible judgment of death. I have told it before, but tell it again because I want people to consider the implications of the fact that God can use even a mentally retarded rapist and murderer for a larger kingdom purpose.
To state the rather obvious point of the column, if John Paul Penry can be used by God, then so can you. So, please, don’t wallow in self-pity. Get over yourself, and get to work. Know that you are still valuable, and you are still needed in doing the difficult work of reaching lost souls wherever you may find them.