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Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for those under 21

University of Washington

A Kentucky judge has issued a pretrial order in a Lexington murder case that could have an impact on the minimum age for the death penalty across the country.

The U.S. Supreme Court established 18 as the minimum age in 2005, but since then there has been mounting scientific evidence that the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s.

Citing that research, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled the state cannot seek the death penalty against Travis Bredhold, who was 18 years and five-months-old when he allegedly robbed and killed a gas station attendant in 2013.

Bredhold's attorney, Joanne Lynch, said she believes it's the first time a judge has ruled capital punishment unconstitutional for offenders younger than 21.

"The decision could have a nationwide impact, and so I do believe it's a significant step in the law of the death penalty,” Lynch said.

Because Scorsone is a trial judge, his order is not binding legal precedent, but that could change if it is upheld on appeal.

Lynch said it could be of use now for other circuit judges in Kentucky. The prosecutor in the Bredhold case argued there is no national consensus on the issue.

But, Lynch said scientific research shows individuals younger than 21 are "psychologically immature," the same way those younger than 18 are. She noted that the last part of the brain to develop is the part that impacts one's ability to think things through.

"I think the law, as Judge Scorsone's order demonstrates, is going to catch up to the neuroscience,” Lynch said. "There are other punishments that are sufficient. You don't need to be pursuing the death penalty for people who are still vulnerable and not fully mature."

The Rev. Pat Delahanty, who chairs the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Scorsone's order is a well-written opinion and underscores the move away from capital punishment across the country.

"This is an opinion that fits in with a trend in the nation,” Delahanty said. "There's a greater understanding today that we don't need a death penalty in order to punish people for crimes of violent murder."

The death penalty remains legal in 31 states. The last execution carried out in Kentucky was nine years ago, yet state lawmakers have continued to reject legislation that would make life without parole the maximum sentence. 

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