Death Penalty: Yes
DPIC's State Database for information on executions, death row population and other statistics in Kentucky
A one-lane bridge. Photo by Donald Vish, who offers this description of the bridge:
"For generations, this one lane bridge was governed by the iron law
of civility and regulated by the fine art of compromise. I am proud of my state
for its history and ethos of overcoming adversity and pursuit of its motto:
United We Stand, Divided We Fall."
Famous capital cases
Rainey Bethea, executed August 14, 1936 at Owensboro, Kentucky, was the last public execution in America. He was publicly hanged for rape on August 14, 1936 in a parking lot in Owensboro, Kentucky (to avoid damage to the courthouse lawn by thousands of people who were expected to attend). Bethea, who was black, confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old white woman named Lischia Edwards but he was never charged with murder. Murder was punishable by death in the electric chair at Eddyville while rape was punishable by public hanging in the county where the rape occurred. Prosecutors opted to go with the rape charge only. The spectacle that attended the hanging contributed to the end of public executions in the United States.
Kevin Stanford is one of three juvenile offenders sentenced to death in Kentucky since the Commonwealth brought back capital punishment in 1975. Sentenced to death for a January 1981 murder committed when he was 17 years old, Stanford's case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which — in a 5-4 vote — upheld the use of the death penalty against offenders aged 16 or 17. In 2003, Governor Paul Patton commuted Stanford's death sentence to life without possibility of parole. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Stanford v. Kentucky in 2005, ruling in Roper v. Simmons that the application of the death penalty against offenders younger than age 18 constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Kentucky Supreme Court had previously overturned the conviction of Todd Ice, who was 15 years old when he charged with the December 1978 murder of a seven-year-old girl. On retrial, Ice was convicted of a lesser offense.
Larry Osborne — then the youngest person on Kentucky's death row — was acquitted upon retrial in July 2002 for the December 1997 murders of two people. Osborne was 17 at the time of his arrest. The 1998 conviction and death sentence was overturned by a unanimous vote of the Kentucky Supreme Court and a new trial was ordered.
Milestones in abolition/reinstatement
In 1880, Kentucky abolished public hanging. In 1920, Kentucky restored public hanging for rape and provided that the sentence was to be carried out in the county where the rape occurred, although prisoners condemned for murder were executed in prison in the electric chair.
In 1938, Kentucky abolished hanging after as many as 20,000 people witnessed the August 14, 1936 hanging of Rainey Bethea (see above).
In 1974, two years after Furman v. Georgia, Kentucky enacted a new capital sentencing statute, Ky. Rev. Stat. § 532.030(1) (1974), that went into effect January 1, 1975. The statute called for a mandatory death sentence for those convicted of murder. The three prisoners sentenced to death under that statute had their death sentences overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory death sentences unconstitutional on July 2, 1976.
In a special legislative session in December 1976, the Kentucky legislature repealed the mandatory death penalty statute and enacted the Commonwealth's current death penalty statute, which took effect on December 22, 1976.
Kentucky adopted the Racial Justice Act on February 5, 1998, allowing judges to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty.
Other interesting facts
Kentucky holds the record for the most judicially authorized executions in a single day: on July 13, 1928 seven men were sequentially electrocuted in "Old Sparky" (the nickname given to the electic chair in Eddyville).
Kentucky has not executed a female in more than 150 years. On February 7, 1868, Kentucky executed a 13-year-old black girl, identified only as "Susan." The youngest person (whose age is known) executed in the state was an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Bill who was hanged on July 30, 1791.
See Roberta M. Harding, Kentucky: Life and Death in Kentucky: Past, Present, and Future, Kentucky Law Journal On-Line, vol. 102 (2013-2014).
Many thanks to the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for contributing to this page.