Kentucky

Kentucky

Kentucky Trial Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional For Offenders Younger Than Age 21

A Kentucky trial court has declared the death penalty unconstitutional when applied against defendants charged with offenses committed while they were younger than age 21. Fayette County Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone's ruling bars the Commonwealth's prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against Travis Bredhold (pictured), who was age 18 years and five months at the time of the 2013 murder and robbery of a gas station attendant. The decision extends the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons, which held that the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishments prohibited states from using the death penalty against offenders who were younger than 18 when the crime occurred. Roper itself had extended the protections of Thompson v. Oklahoma, which had created an age 16 minimum for death eligibility. In issuing its decision, the Kentucky court credited new scientific research on brain development and behavior that, it said, shows that 18- to 21-year-olds "are categorically less culpable" for the same reasons the Roper court excluded teenagers under age 18 from the death penalty. Scarsone wrote that the new scientific evidence shows that the portions of the brains of 18- to 21-year-olds that govern impulse control and evaluation of risks and rewards are more like those of teens than adults, "making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment." Additionally, like teens, 18- to 21-year-olds "remain susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence, which exacerbates their existing immaturity when in groups or under stressful conditions." Scorsone also wrote that the character of 18- to 21-year-olds is not yet well formed, and that because of the flexibility of the young brain to change in response to experience, "they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults.” The court evaluated changes in death-penalty practices nationwide since Roper was decided, finding what it called "a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty" in cases involving offenders ages 18 to 20. Looking at states that have abolished the death penalty, imposed moratoria on executions, or have a "de facto prohibitions on the execution of offenders under [age] 21"—meaning they have carried no executions of such defendants in at least 15 years—the court found that there are currently 30 states that would not execute offenders aged 18 through 20. Given the new scientific evidence and the "consistent direction of change" away from the practice, Scarcone concluded that “the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age." The court's decision also affects three other defendants whose death-penalty cases are pending before Scarcone. Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn has announced that she will appeal the ruling, calling it "contrary to the laws of Kentucky and the laws of the United States." There are currently 33 prisoners on Kentucky’s death row. The Commonwealth's last execution was in 2008.

Kentucky Attorneys Argue to Expand Juvenile Death Penalty Exemption, Citing Neurological Studies

Defense attorneys for Travis Bredhold, a Kentucky defendant facing the death penalty for a murder committed when he was 18 years old, are asking a judge to extend the death-penalty exemption for juvenile offenders to those younger than age 21. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court (pictured) ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment when applied to offenders who were under age 18 at the time of the crime. The Court held at that time that a national consensus had evolved against such executions and that the death penalty was a disproportionate punishment for juvenile offenders. In reaching that determination, the Court said that neither retribution nor deterrence provided adequate justification for imposing the death penalty. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, "Retribution is not proportional if the law’s most severe penalty is imposed on one whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity." Joanne Lynch, an attorney for Bredhold, told Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone that research indicates that brain maturation continues beyond the age of 18, and the juvenile exemption should be extended, "because people under the age of 21 are almost completely like people under the age of 18. You really don’t mature until you are in your mid-20s." According to Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, a process called myelination continues into a person's twenties, affecting their ability to plan ahead, analyze risks and rewards, and make complex decisions. In a 2014 paper, Hollis Whitson cited both neurological evidence of the immaturity of late-adolescent brains, as well as examples of how the law differentiates people under 21, including liquor laws, inheritance laws, and eligibility for commerical drivers' licenses. She also found that death sentences for those aged 18-20 were disproportionately applied to racial minorities. From 2000 through 2015, 142 prisoners were executed in the United States for offenses committed before age 21: 87 (61.3%) were black or Latino.

As Council Reviews Kentucky's Criminal Justice Policies, Former Prosecutors, Judge Urge Repeal of Death Penalty

Kentucky's recently-formed Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council will be examining the state's criminal code, and is expected to examine a wide range of criminal justice issues—including the death penalty—in the first major overhaul of Kentucky's criminal code since the 1970s. The council, which was formed by Gov. Matt Bevin, includes legislators, judges, criminal justice experts, and religious leaders, charged with producing a list of recommendations for Kentucky lawmakers. One council member, Bishop William Medley, of the Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, has expressed moral opposition to the death penalty, and received backing for repealing the punishment from some in the courts and the prosecution bar. Circuit Judge Jay Wethington, a former prosecutor who prosecuted death penalty cases told the Messenger-Inquirer that he was "going to side with ... Bishop Medley" on that issue, but for different reasons. "We need to get rid of the death penalty," he said. "We spend too much money for the results." Meanwhile, three former Kentucky prosecutors wrote an op-ed for Louisville's Courier-Journal urging abolition of the death penalty. Joseph Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider discussed the results of a recent University of Kentucky poll, which found that a large majority (72.4%) of Kentuckians support a moratorium on executions. They noted that support for the death penalty has risen since 2011, when the American Bar Association released a study that found serious problems with Kentucky's application of the death penalty. At that point, 62% of Kentuckians favored a suspension of executions. They conclude, "These poll results make it clear that Kentuckians’ concern about the fairness of the state’s criminal justice system is growing. As we have written before, replacing the death penalty with life without parole is the best approach for our state – protecting public safety, providing justice to the families of victims, removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed and saving limited tax dollars."

Support for the Death Penalty by Republican Legislators No Longer a Sure Thing

One year after the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and overrode a gubernatorial veto of that measure, actions in legislatures across the country suggest that the state's efforts signalled a growing movement against the death penalty by conservative legislators and that support for the death penalty among Republican legislators is no longer a given. Reporting in The Washington Post, Amber Phillips writes that Republican legislators in ten states sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to repeal capital punishment during the current legislative sessions. She reports that although these repeal bills have not become law, they have made unprecedented progress in several states. In Utah, a repeal bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart (pictured)—a former death penalty proponent who supported the state's firing squad law—came closest, winning approval in the state Senate and in a House committee. Missouri's bill saw floor debate in the Senate, and Kentucky's received a committee hearing for the first time in 40 years. An effort to return death penalty support to the platform of the Kansas Republican Party failed by a vote of 90-75, and the Kansas College Republicans passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty, highlighting a generational divide on the issue. Dalton Glasscock, former president of Kansas College Republicans, said, "My generation is looking for consistency on issues. I believe if we say we're pro-life, we need to be truly pro-life, from conception to death." The National Association of Evangelicals also changed their stance on the issue, acknowledging "a growing number of evangelicals," who now call for abolition. Though a majority of Republicans still support the death penalty, Phillips writes that "it's notable that a year after we wondered whether Nebraska was an anomaly or the start of a trend, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that conservative opposition to the death penalty may indeed be a trend -- a small but growing one."

EDITORIALS: Kentucky Newspaper Reverses Position on the Death Penalty

The Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky's second-largest newspaper, announced it was ending its long-held support for the death penalty, and now believes the state legislature should abolish capital punishment. Describing its previous position as "keep it but fix it," the editors stated, "we must now concede that the death penalty is not going to be fixed and, in fact, probably cannot be fixed at any defensible cost to taxpayers." Citing the 2011 American Bar Association assessment of Kentucky's death penalty, the Herald-Leader said the system was "rife with injustices and the potential for error." Among the reasons cited in the paper's editorial for the changing its position was the negative effects of the death penalty on victims' families and correctional officers. It quoted Dr. Allen Ault, who oversaw executions in Georgia, and who said, "I do not know one [correctional officer] who has not experienced a negative impact," noting an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

NEW VOICES: Kentucky Judge Calls for Legislation to End the Death Penalty

Speaking from the bench at a hearing in a Kentucky capital case, Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine said, "Something needs to be done legislatively in Kentucky and in every state in the U.S. I think the death penalty probably should not be a penalty, ever." Despite her personal views, Goodwine ruled that the death penalty could be sought against a man accused of participating in a murder, even though he did not shoot the victim. "As the law in Kentucky stands right now ... he's death-eligible as a conspirator in this case," Goodwine said. "That's the law as it stands right now. I, as a trial judge, have to follow that law whether I agree with it or not. If I had my druthers, there would be no death penalty in Kentucky." She added that she was frustrated with the time and expense of capital cases and the emotional toll they take on everyone involved. 

NEW VOICES: Former Prosecutors Call for Repeal of Kentucky's Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, three former Kentucky prosecutors advocated for repeal of the death penalty. Citing the findings of a study by the American Bar Association on Kentucky's law, Joseph P. Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider said, "[T]he death penalty is broken beyond repair in Kentucky." Among the report's findings were a reversal rate of 60% in death penalty cases, a lack of standards for eyewitness identification and interrogations, and public defender caseloads that far exceed the national average, despite pay that is 31% lower than surrounding states. A poll taken around the time of the report found 62% of Kentucky voters in support of a moratorium on executions. The former prosecutors recommended repeal: "Without question, this is a difficult issue, and efforts to 'fix' the death penalty in Kentucky will be costly and time-consuming. But there is one approach that is simpler and less expensive: Abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole for convicted offenders....Replacing [the death penalty] with life without parole is the best approach for our state — removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, saving limited tax dollars, protecting public safety and providing certainty and justice to the families of victims." Read the op-ed below.

Kentucky Holds First Public Hearing on Future of Death Penalty

A joint committee of 32 senators and representatives held the first public hearing on Kentucky's death penalty since capital punishment was reinstated there in 1975. The hearing was prompted by a death penalty repeal bill proposed by Republican Rep. David Floyd, who said the death penalty should be ended because of the cost and time it takes for cases to complete the appeals process. He was also concerned about the number of death penalty cases that have been overturned. A 2011 study by the American Bar Association found that 64% of the death sentences they examined were later overturned or commuted. Rep. Floyd said, "Conservatives in general have less trust in government. Why would we trust them in a matter of life and death? If people are given the opportunity to consider all those things, they may come to the same conclusion, that life without parole is a better option for Kentucky." Kentucky has carried out three executions since reinstatement, but executions are currently on hold while a judge reviews the state's lethal injection protocol.

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