Crime

Fayette judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for man under 21

Flanked by attorneys, Travis Bredhold stood before Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone in a hearing in Lexington.
Flanked by attorneys, Travis Bredhold stood before Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone in a hearing in Lexington. gkocher1@herald-leader.com

The death penalty is unconstitutional for a defendant who was younger than 21 at the time of his offense, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled earlier this week.

Scorsone issued an order declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of 21-year-old Travis Bredhold. He was 18 years and five months old when he was charged in 2013 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel.

Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said in a statement Friday that she will appeal Scorsone’s order “because it is contrary to the laws of Kentucky and the laws of the United States.”

Red Corn said two other cases eligible for the death penalty and pending before Scorsone will be affected by his ruling.

One is the case against Justin Smith and Efrain Diaz, who, along with juvenile co-defendant Roman Gonzales, who is being tried as an adult, were indicted in the murder of Jonathan Krueger in the course of a robbery on Maxwell Street in 2015.

The other is the case against Marquess Smith, who, along with his juvenile co-defendants Marique Sturgis, Ricky Auxier and Christopher Allen, was indicted for the murder of Caleb Hallett in the course of a robbery on University Drive in 2016.

Red Corn’s statement said the judge’s ruling “will result in delays” in all three cases.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

Bredhold’s defense team asked Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Prosecutors argued that the death penalty is constitutional and argued that there is no national consensus with respect to offenders under 21.

Scorsone disagreed. “Contrary to the commonwealth’s assertion, it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

The judge also cited research showing that 18- to 21-year-olds are less culpable for the same reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court found teens under 18 to be. The age group lacks maturity to control their impulses and fully consider risks, making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment, the judge wrote.

In addition, they are susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence. And their character is not yet well formed, “meaning that they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults,” the judge wrote.

“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,” Scorsone wrote.

An individual evaluation that Bredhold “operates at a level at least four years below that of his peers” further supports the exclusion of the death penalty for Bredhold, the judge concluded.

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