Politics

The Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday over whether 18 to 21 year-olds should receive the death penalty. This was during a special hearing in Somerset intended to educate people about the court’s role in state government.

The arguments stemmed from two cases in Lexington, where a judge ruled that the death penalty could not be imposed, citing scientific evidence that people in the age group can’t yet fully control their impulses.

Matthew Krygiel, an assistant state attorney general, argued that Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone “abused his power” by ruling that the age group should be exempt from the death penalty.

“Likewise, this will be a very unpopular opinion on this stage, but this court also does not have that power,” Krygiel said.

“It’s completely consistent to say that someone in that 18 to 20 range is impetuous or lacks judgement while also believing that a person who commits intentional murder — at least sometimes — can be equally as culpable as an adult.”

The cases involved the 2015 fatal shooting of Jonathan Krueger, a UK student and photographer for the school’s student newspaper, and the 2013 fatal shooting of Mukeshbhai Patel, a gas station attendant.

Prosecutors said that both shootings stemmed from armed robberies. Defendants in both cases were between the ages of 18 and 21 at the time of the shootings.

Tim Arnold, a state public defender, argued for the Supreme Court to uphold Scorsone’s ruling barring the death penalty for the age group.

“During this period there remains heightened plasticity within the brain and a general inability to predict future criminality because the brain is still developing,” Arnold said.

“It is very hard to make reliable predictions about how somebody will act during this timeframe.”

During the hearing, Justice Michelle Keller compared the lower court’s ruling to court decisions barring the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities.

“Why would it not be appropriate for Judge Scorsone and then this court to look at the development of the science and the ability to evaluate the young brain, just like we did in the area of mental and intellectual disability?” Keller asked.

It’s unclear when a ruling on the case will be issued.

The state Supreme Court usually meets in the Capitol Building in Frankfort. Thursday’s arguments took place at the Center for Rural Development auditorium in Somerset as “part of an ongoing public education program,” according to a release.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.