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KY Judge Rules Death Penalty Protocol Unconstitutional

Kentucky spends about $10 million annually on death-penalty court proceedings, according to the state's Department of Public Advocacy. (Adobe Stock)
Kentucky spends about $10 million annually on death-penalty court proceedings, according to the state's Department of Public Advocacy. (Adobe Stock)
July 16, 2019

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Franklin County judge has ruled the state's protocol for carrying out the death penalty is unconstitutional. The ruling by Judge Phillip Shepherd came in response to a case filed by a group of death-row inmates, who argued corrections department regulations don't protect people with intellectual disabilities.

Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Aaron Bentley, chair of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the judge's decision highlights one of the many flaws in the state's system.

"What Kentucky is asking us is to trust that a person not only deserves - in their estimation - to be executed, but is fit to be executed,” Bentley said. “And what the decision from the Franklin circuit court shows is that we can't trust that."

Bentley pointed out the state once relied on IQ testing to determine whether or not a person could be considered intellectually disabled. In 2018, Kentucky's Supreme Court ruled IQ alone is not sufficient to determine mental competency. Bentley said corrections departments should be performing comprehensive psychological testing to ensure defendants have the ability to understand why they are being sentenced to die.

Litigation over Kentucky's execution protocol has been ongoing for more than a decade. Republican State Rep. Chad McCoy of Bardstown said Kentuckians should be aware that legal fees and other costs involved in death-row cases are draining state funds.

"Right now with the death penalty in Kentucky, since 1978, I think we've had 33 people sentenced to death, but we've only actually executed three. And of those three, one of them voluntarily said 'I'm not going to do any appeals; go ahead and do it.' And the other two actually went through the system,” McCoy said. “We waste just a ton of money on the appeals, that last literally for years, and years and years, and years."

The state spends an estimated $10 million per year on death-penalty court proceedings, according to the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy.

Disclosure: Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty contributes to our fund for reporting on Criminal Justice, Human Rights/Racial Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - KY