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September 20, 2019

Kentucky Supreme Court hears arguments to preclude death penalty for defendants under age 21

As reported in this local article, the Kentucky Supreme Court heard a notable death penalty case yesterday.  Here are the details:

Kentucky could become the first death penalty state to put additional age restrictions on capital punishment.  Currently, 18 is the legal age allowed in the United States.  However, the Supreme Court of Kentucky could ban the death penalty for defendants who committed a crime between the ages of 18 and 21.

On Thursday, the Court heard the arguments surrounding two high profile murders out of Lexington.

In the first case, Efrain Diaz Jr. and Justin Smith are charged with the death of UK student Jonathan Krueger. Police say Krueger and a friend were walking home on East Maxwell St. in 2015 when Diaz, Smith, and Roman Gonzalez approached them.  Police say the three were armed and one of them shot and killed Krueger.  Gonzalez was 17-years-old at the time, so the death penalty cannot be applied to him. However, Diaz was 20-years-old at the time and Smith was 18.

In the second case, Travis Bredhold is accused of allegedly robbing and killing gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel in 2013.  Bredhold was 18-years-old at the time.

If things stand as they currently do, Bredhold, Diaz, and Smith will not face the death penalty. In Fayette County Circuit Court, Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled the death penalty is unconstitutional for people in that age range because new science shows their brains are still developing and they lack the maturity to assess risks and control their impulses.

The defendants' lawyer, who wants the Supreme Court of Kentucky to uphold Scorsone's ruling, used the science argument in court today.  "In 2005, we thought the problem with juvenile misbehavior was simply that the brakes were defective," said defense lawyer Timothy Arnold.  "Now, we know they have their foot on the gas and they are flooring it between the ages of 18 and 20."

The Attorney General's Office argued against that, hoping to convince the Court to overturn the Scorsone's ruling. "Judge Ernesto Scorsone of the Fayette Circuit Court abused his power when he decided that 18 to 20 year olds were exempt from the death penalty," said assistant state attorney general Matthew Krygiel.

The Attorney General's Office argued that the Supreme Court of the United States set the age for capital punishment at 18 and that should be followed.  Krygiel reiterated that 18 is the legal age of an adult in the United States. "Being 18 years old, you can enlist in the Army," said Krygiel. "They give you an assault rifle and send you halfway across the world, and after some basic training on the rules of engagement, you're going to decide whether or not to pull a trigger and shoot somebody."

However, the defense lawyer believes the Kentucky Supreme Court has the power to revisit the age limit. Arnold argued that given the new science available, 18 to 21 year olds should not have capital punishment as a penalty option. "To be clear, nobody's proposing throwing a parade for anybody," said Arnold.  "What we are saying is simply that they're not eligible for the death penalty.  They'll still be eligible for life without parole or any other penalty that would be applicable to somebody who committed a serious crime. The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst, and science shows that they're not that."

Prior related post:

September 20, 2019 at 10:05 AM | Permalink


I live in Lexington, and have been following these cases for several years now. In Bredhold's case, he was 18 years, 5 months when he committed cold blooded murder of a gas station/ convenience store clerk (who was cooperating and giving him the money) during an armed robbery. According to Bredhold's evaluation by KCPC, his mind functions intellectually and emotionally life that of a 14 year old. The record is well-developed, and includes the testimony of a defense expert neurologist/psychiatrist. In my mind, the question is whether the eligibility of those between 18 and 21 for the death penalty should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, or whether they can be categorically excluded, as Judge Scorsone has written and held. The second case was a crime of opportunity committed against two University of Kentucky students who were walking home about 2 a.m. The student who was murdered was a highly respected Photo Editor of the U.K. student newspaper, "The Kentucky Kernel". It was just a crazy street robbery gone bad; how much could a robber get from a college student who doesn't even own a car? One little known aspect of the second case is that it occurred less than 100 yards from the residence of one the Judge's colleagues, a well-known Fayette Family Court Judge, who was previously a State Senator.

Posted by: James Gormley | Sep 21, 2019 1:59:55 PM

Bredhold was arrested around Christmas 2013, less than a week after the killing. He had about $600 of the cash robbery proceeds with him in his pockets, at the largest shopping Mall in Fayette County, doing Christmas shopping for family and friends. Unbeknownst to him, his former foster parents had identified his televised picture (taken from store security camera video) for law enforcement. Every police officer in Fayette County had a copy of his picture and was looking for him. Officers present at Fayette Mall identified him and coordinated his take-down by radios, so well that officers had him down on the floor, handcuffing him, before he could touch the .380 automatic pistol in his jacket pocket. Bredhold is a very violent man. Before his Facebook page was taken down, it's main picture was of an AK-47 with an 80-round drum magazine, which detectives found when they searched his apartment. Another of Bredhold's Facebook pics was of a matte black, pistol grip automatic shotgun, surrounded all around by stacks of $100 bills. Bredhold was reportedly a member of the "Dirty White Boys" street gang in Louisville; he though he was a gangster. Interestingly, he has an identical twin brother, who was already incarcerated in a Kentucky prison for unrelated crimes, at the time Bredhold committed the armed robbery and murder. Both were raised in Kentucky's foster care system. Bredhold graduated in May or June of 2013 from Lexington's "Martin Luther King Academy", which is an alternative high school for kids that have been expelled from Lexington's other mainstream public high schools. Because Bredhold is being held without bond (which is permitted in Kentucky capital cases), he is now by far the longest serving inmate in the Fayette County detention center (jail). By Christmas 2019, Bredhold will have been held as a pre-trial detainee for 6 years. His trial is presently scheduled for June of 2020, by which time the Kentucky Supreme Court should have ruled on the Commonwealth's pre-trial appeal of Judge Scorsone's opinion that Bredhold cannot face the death penalty. Of course, that decision is like to appealed further, into the Federal Court system, and eventually may be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Posted by: James Gormley | Sep 21, 2019 2:21:34 PM

I will also add that the location of the murder of Jonathan Krueger (U.K. Student Photo Editor) is less than one mile from my own home in Lexington. The location is at the intersection of Transylvania Park (and older, upscale street of brick homes) and East Maxwell Street. This is usually a safe neighborhood, where private apartments rented to U.K. students (and even some fraternities and sororities houses) adjoin the border to Lexington's downtown business district and another 19th century historical neighborhood, South Hill. Violent crime is rare in this area.

Posted by: James Gormley | Sep 21, 2019 2:33:48 PM

Even if Bredhold faces the death penalty, it is unlikely that it would be imposed upon him. Kentucky has only 34 people on death row, and has executed only 5 people since 1953 (the last execution was in 2008). Public opinion surveys reveal that about 67% of Kentuckians say that they favor the death penalty in appropriate cases. But when you put those same Kentucians on a death penalty qualified jury, things change, when they have to look an individual defendant in the eyes and say "kill him". In 2009, there were 106 death qualified jurys seated in Kentucky, yet none of them (0%) recommended the death penalty for any of the defendants convicted of some truly heinous crimes.

Posted by: James Gormley | Sep 21, 2019 2:41:49 PM

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