SOMERSET, Ky. (KT) - The Kentucky Supreme Court took the show to the Center for Rural Development in Somerset on Thursday to hear oral arguments on three Fayette County death penalty cases involving young adults.
One involves Travis Bredhold, who was 18 when he was charged with murder, robbery, theft and other charges, stemming from a 2013 incident where a convenience store clerk was shot to death. The others involve a 2017 shooting, with Efrain Diaz, 20 at the time, and Justin Smith, then 18, both indicted for murder and robbery.
In all three cases, Fayette Circuit judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled that a scientific consensus has emerged that the brains of older adolescents, those aged 18 to 20, suffered from the same psychological and neurological deficiencies as juvenile offenders, and held Kentucky’s death penalty was unconstitutional.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Krygiel, who argued against the ruling, said: “It is solely the prerogative of the United State Supreme Court to overrule their precedent. Regardless of whether there’s a subsequent decision that undermines the rationale of an opinion, it is still their decision alone. 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.”
Krygiel also noted, “There is not a single law in the country, federal law, state law, anywhere, that exempts 18- to 20-year-olds. There is nothing.”
He was asked by justices if the science hadn’t progressed and developed in developmental issues of young brains that led the U. S. Supreme Court in a 2005 case to ban the death penalty for those under 18 as cruel and unusual punishment.
Krygiel admitted expert testimony in Fayette Circuit Court said the brain doesn’t develop and mature until the age of 24. “However, there’s a lot more information from his testimony that is critically important when you’re determining that just because that development hasn’t finished, doesn’t necessarily mean that those individuals in the 18 to 20 range should be exempt from the death penalty.”
Attorney Timothy Arnold, representing Bredhold and Diaz, said science has changed since the 2005 case.
“In 2005, we thought the problem with juvenile misbehavior was simply that the brakes were defective. Now we know that they have their foot on the gas and they are flooring it between the ages of a8 and 20.”
He continued, “Their maturity is coming later, so they have a poor capacity for self-control, and as a result of that the peak age for risky decision-making is between 18 and 21.”
Arnold also noted that during the trial, there was no argument by prosecutors that the science was invalid. “Judge Scorsone specifically asked the prosecution if they had people they wished to present, and they did not. They elected not to present it, which I presume means they had done their own research and concluded that there wasn’t really anybody who was going to disagree with this conclusion.”
There is no timetable on when the justices will render their decision.