Death penalty dealt a blow in Ky.

Bishops signed pledges to end the death penalty at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington May 9. (CNS Photo by Tyler Orsburn)
Bishops signed pledges to end the death penalty at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington May 9. (CNS Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A Fayette County Circuit Court judge ruled Aug. 1 that Kentucky’s statute allowing offenders under age 21 at the time of their offense to face death is unconstitutional.

The ruling could affect other active court cases involving young defendants in Fayette County, and possibly around Kentucky, where a death sentence is a consideration.

Opponents of capital punishment — including the Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK) — welcomed the decision by Judge Ernesto Scorsone.

The CCK, which represents Kentucky’s bishops on matters of public policy, called it an encouraging decision.

“Things like this are really important reforms” as work toward abolishing the penalty continues, said Jason Hall, the CCK’s executive director. “But I’m sure it will be appealed.”

Father Patrick Delahanty, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville and chair of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, praised the decision and noted that it’s in step with a national trend.

“We’re happy,” he said. “It’s all part of a trend in this country away from the death penalty.”

Judge Scorsone, he said,  “points out how many states are no longer using this for people under 21. There is a moving standard of decency. Because we now know more (about the development of young people) and states are moving away from death sentences, this has become cruel and unusual.”

Judge Scorsone writes in his decision, in the case of Commonwealth vs. Bredhold,  “Given the national trend toward restricting the use of the death penalty for young offenders, and given the recent studies by the scientific community, the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age.”

Bredhold was indicted for a robbery and murder that occurred Dec. 9, 2013, when he was 18 years old.

Judge Scorsone’s opinion cited several studies and research related to the cognitive and social development of young people. He also referred to a 2005 case, Roper vs. Simmons, which led to the prohibition of death sentences for those who were under 18 at the time of their offense.

New information, he writes, supports “the conclusion that individuals under 21 years of age are categorically less culpable in the same ways that the court in Roper decided individuals under 18 were less culpable.”

Jason Hall of the CCK said, “This is an encouraging decision from the perspective that people are starting to see the science and what we know about the development of the brain and culpability in young people. It also recognizes the breakdown of the family and its effect on young people.”

The Catholic Church in the United States stands firmly against capital punishment, judging that the punishment is unnecessary in the U.S., which has modern criminal justice and prison systems.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” states that around the world, capital punishment is permissible “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

It goes on to quote St. John Paul II, saying, “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if  practically non-existent.’ ”

In May, the bishops of the United States signed a pledge committing themselves to ending the death penalty here.

Hall, whose work focuses primarily on legislative issues, said he hopes Kentucky lawmakers pay attention to Judge Scorsone’s opinion on the matter.

“I would hope that the same science that led Judge Scorsone to issue this decision would also help the General Assembly” weigh the issue in legislative matters, he said.

The Catholic Conference has long supported legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty. Hall expects proposals to end capital punishment to be filed during the  2018 General Assembly, as they have in years past.

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