Kentucky’s death penalty is racially discriminatory, geographically arbitrary, and riddled with systemic flaws, a new study of the commonwealth’s use of capital punishment has found.

The study, A Statistical Overview of the Kentucky Death Penalty, by University of North Carolina political scientist Frank R. Baumgartner, examined Kentucky’s use of the death penalty from 1975, when its current system was implemented, to the present. Prof. Baumgartner released his analysis of the results on January 11, 2022.

Baumgartner found “extraordinary racial disparities” in Kentucky’s application of capital punishment based on the race and sex of both victims and defendant that, he said, “call into question the equity of the entire system.” The disparities reflected a strong white-victim preference — and particular a white-female-victim preference — in whether a death sentence would be imposed. Death verdicts were more than 5 times as likely to be imposed in cases with white victims than in those with black victims and were 11 times as likely in cases with white female victims than in those with black male victims. “When the offender is black and the victim a white female,” the study found, “odds are more than 20 times greater for a death sentence than in cases where both are black.”

Baumgartner also found “little connection” between murder rates and death sentences in Kentucky and significant geographic disparities in way the death penalty was sought and imposed. The sentences were also geographically arbitrary: a large majority of Kentucky counties (70.8%) have never imposed the death penalty, and only the two counties with the largest Black populations — Jefferson and Fayette — have imposed more than three death sentences.

The study also examined the outcomes of death-penalty cases. Baumgartner found, “The single most common outcome of a death sentence, affecting exactly half of those ever sentenced to death, is to see a successful appeal of their death sentence and the imposition of a new [non-capital] sentence.” With 41 of the 82 people sentenced to death since 1975 having had their sentences reversed and just three (3.7%) executions, death-sentenced prisoners in Kentucky “are nearly 14 times more likely to have their sentence reversed than carried out,” Baumgartner said. (Click here to enlarge graphic.) Thirty death-sentenced prisoners are still on death row and eight others died while on the row.

Kentucky has not carried out an execution since 2008, and “no [death] sentences have been handed down since 2014, even though over 1,000 homicides have occurred in that period,” Baumgartner said. “[W]hat is the point of retaining a costly system that is racially biased, rarely used, and so capriciously applied?”

Russell Allen, the co-director of organizing at the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, stressed the study’s striking findings regarding discrimination. “It’s clear that racial disparities factor in in a way that is, of course, detrimental to Black and brown folks,” he said. That is also the common thread between race-of-victim-and-defendant disparities and the geographic disparities. Jefferson County, home to Louisville, has imposed 19 death sentences; Fayette County, home to Lexington, has imposed ten. “The only two places that have double digits are places with large Black populations,” Allen said.

Additional findings from the study illustrate the nationwide pattern of the aging of death row. The average amount of time a prisoner spends on Kentucky’s death row has increased every decade. Those whose sentences were reversed in the 1980s spent less than ten years on death row, on average; those reversed in the 2010s approached an average of 20 years. At the same time, fewer people are being added to Kentucky’s death row. As a result, the average age of death-row prisoners has steadily increased. In 1980, the average age of death row was 32. By 2020, it had nearly doubled to 60.3, and no death-row prisoners were younger than 45.

“If the death penalty is supposed to be this thing that’s utilized to provide swift justice to families, … it’s not being used that way and folks haven’t intended to use it that way in a long time,” Allen said.


Frank R. Baumgartner, A Statistical Overview of the Kentucky Death Penalty, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, January 11, 2022; Jeremy Chisenhal, Application of Kentucky’s death penal­ty shows racial bias­es, new report says, Lexington Herald-Leader, January 112022.