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Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for defendants under 21

Robert F. Stephens Courthouse in Fayette County

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for defendants under 21

A Kentucky judge has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for defendants who committed a murder before they turned 21 years of old.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty is unconstitutional for anyone who committed murder when they were under the age of 18.

Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone’s ruling was issued during pre-trial litigation in the case of Travis Bredhold, who is charged with the robbery and murder of Lexington gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel in 2013. The crime occurred when Bredhold was 18 years old.

Defense attorneys argued that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty against Bredhold for a crime that occurred when he was still a teenager. The prosecution countered that Roper did not exclude a defendant like Bredhold who was 18 years old at the time of the crime, and there was no “national consensus” with respect to excluding defendants under 21 years old from the risk of the death penalty.

In a detailed order, Scorsone wrote that a psychological assessment provided to the court established “that Mr. Bredhold was about four years behind his peer group in multiple capacities,” and that he “had weaknesses in executive functions, such as attention, impulse control, and mental flexibility.” Scorsone also credited testimony from an expert in adolescent development, who testified during a pre-trial hearing about “the maturational differences” between adolescents (ages 10 to 21) and adults (21 and over). The court noted that “adolescents are more impulsive, more likely to misperceive risk, less able to regulate behavior, more easily emotionally aroused, and, importantly, more capable of change.”

Scorsone emphasized that studies showing the adolescent brain’s “heightened plasticity” — “the ability to change in response to experience” — along with the natural course of development for adolescents make it “difficult to predict future criminality or delinquent behavior from antisocial behavior during the teen years, even among teenagers accused of committing violent crimes.”

Scorsone also reviewed changes in the administration of the death penalty since the Roper decision, concluding that “it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in the case where defendants are eighteen (18) to twenty-one (21) years of age.”

“Not only have six more states abolished the death penalty since Roper in 2005, four more have imposed moratoria on executions, and seven more of de factoprohibitions on the execution of defendants eighteen (18) to twenty-one (21),” Scorsone wrote.

“Travis Bredhold was eighteen (18) years and five (5) months old at the time of the alleged crime,” Scorsone wrote. “According to recent scientific studies, Mr. Bredbold fits right into the group experiencing the ‘maturational imbalance,’ during which his system for sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and susceptibility to peer pressure was fully developed, while his system for planning and impulse control lagged behind, unable to override those impulses.”

It will now be up to the office of Fayette County Commonwealth Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn to decide whether to appeal Scorsone’s decision. But an appeal is likely.

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