Commonwealth v. Bredhold, 2017-SC-000436-TG

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
Writing for the CourtOPINION OF THE COURT BY JUSTICE HUGHES
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLANT v. TRAVIS M. BREDHOLD APPELLEE AND COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLANT v. EFRAIN DIAZ, JR. JUSTIN SMITH APPELLEES
Docket Number2017-SC-000436-TG,2017-SC-000536-TG,2017-SC-000537-TG
Decision Date26 March 2020

COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLANT
v.
TRAVIS M. BREDHOLD APPELLEE
AND
COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLANT
v.
EFRAIN DIAZ, JR.
JUSTIN SMITH APPELLEES

2017-SC-000436-TG
2017-SC-000536-TG
2017-SC-000537-TG

Supreme Court of Kentucky

MARCH 26, 2020


TO BE PUBLISHED

ON TRANSFER FROM COURT OF APPEALS
CASE NO. 2017-CA-001327-MR
FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT NO. 14-CR-00161
HONORABLE ERNESTO SCORSONE

ON TRANSFER FROM COURT OF APPEALS
CASE NOS. 2017-CA-001541-MR AND 2017-CA-001542-MR
FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT NOS. 15-CR-00584-001-002
HONORABLE ERNESTO SCORSONE

OPINION OF THE COURT BY JUSTICE HUGHES

VACATING INTERLOCUTORY ORDERS AND REMANDING

These three consolidated cases present the issue of whether evolving standards of decency are such that the Eighth Amendment to the United States

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Constitution prohibits imposition of the death penalty as to a defendant under twenty-one (21) years of age at the time of his offense. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the United States Supreme Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment, applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, proscribes the execution of juvenile offenders over fifteen (15) but under eighteen (18) years of age. Roper overruled Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), a case which had rejected that very age-based argument sixteen years earlier. Citing changes in the national consensus with respect to the death penalty and then-recent psychological and neurobiological research, the Roper Court concluded that the social purposes allegedly served by the death penalty, retribution and deterrence, were not justified in the case of offenders under age eighteen (18) due to their youth and immaturity. Appellees Travis Bredhold, Efrain Diaz, Jr., and Justin Smith successfully persuaded the Fayette Circuit Court that the current national consensus and more recent scientific research now support raising the age for death-penalty eligibility to twenty-one (21). After careful consideration, we conclude that this significant constitutional issue was not a "justiciable cause"1 before the circuit court and is not properly before this Court. At this stage of the criminal proceedings, none of the Appellees has been convicted, much less sentenced, and thus none has standing to raise an Eighth Amendment challenge to the death penalty.

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Accordingly, we are compelled to vacate the interlocutory orders and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A Fayette County grand jury indicted Travis M. Bredhold and charged him with one count of murder, first-degree robbery, theft by unlawful taking over $10,000, trafficking in less than eight ounces of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and carrying a concealed deadly weapon. Bredhold allegedly robbed a Marathon gas station and fatally shot Mukeshbhai Patel, an employee, on December 17, 2013. Bredhold was eighteen (18) years and five (5) months old at the time of the offenses. 2017-SC-000436-TG.

Efrain Diaz, Jr., and Justin Smith, co-defendants, are charged with the robbery and fatal shooting of Jonathan Krueger on April 17, 2015.2 A Fayette County grand jury indicted and charged Diaz with one count of murder and two counts of first-degree robbery. Diaz was twenty (20) years and seven (7) months old at the time he allegedly committed the offenses. The same grand jury indicted and charged Smith with one count of murder, two counts of first-degree robbery, and one count each of tampering with physical evidence and first-degree fleeing or evading police. Smith was eighteen (18) years and five (5) months old at the time of the alleged offenses. 2017-SC-000536-TG, 2017-SC-000537-TG.

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All three Appellees pled not guilty and in all three cases the Commonwealth gave notice of its intent to seek the death penalty. Each Appellee moved the trial court to exclude the death penalty as a sentencing option at trial, specifically asking the trial court to extend the holding of Roper, 543 U.S. 551. As noted, Roper holds that capital punishment is an unconstitutional penalty for juvenile offenders less than eighteen (18) years old at the time of the offense. Each Appellee requested the trial court to extend the death penalty prohibition to include persons under the age of twenty-one (21) at the time of the offense.

Bredhold and Smith supplemented their respective motions to remove the death penalty with an affidavit of Dr. Ken Benedict, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. Dr. Benedict found Bredhold was about four years behind his peer group in multiple capacities, including the capacity to regulate his emotions and behavior, and that he suffered from a number of mental disorders. As for Smith, Dr. Benedict concluded his executive functions related to planning, anticipating the consequences of his actions, and impulse control are below those of an adult and he too exhibited a number of mental disorders.3

The trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing on Diaz's and Smith's motions, hearing Dr. Laurence Steinberg's testimony. Dr. Steinberg, a

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nationally recognized expert in adolescent development, explained current scientific knowledge regarding brain development and its impact on behavior, comparing the maturational differences between individuals less than twenty-one (21) years of age and those twenty-one (21) and older. Dr. Steinberg also supplemented his testimony with a written report. The Commonwealth did not submit any proof. Although the testimony was presented in the Diaz/Smith case, the trial court supplemented Bredhold's record with the Steinberg testimony.

The trial court later entered a separate but similar order in each case declaring Kentucky's death penalty statute unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment insofar as it permits capital punishment for offenders under twenty-one (21) years of age at the time of their offense. In addition to this general legal conclusion, the court made specific findings regarding Bredhold's and Smith's individual psychological assessments. The trial court concluded that those individual findings provided further support for the exclusion of the death penalty as to Bredhold and Smith individually.

The Commonwealth filed interlocutory appeals and this Court granted the Commonwealth's motions to transfer the appeals from the Court of Appeals pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Civil Procedure (CR) 74.02, finding that the issues raised are of great and immediate public importance and arose during capital litigation, an area exclusively within this Court's appellate jurisdiction. Skaggs v. Commonwealth, 803 S.W.2d 573, 577 (Ky. 1990); Commonwealth v. Guernsey, 501 S.W.3d 884, 887 (Ky. 2016).

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ANALYSIS

In these consolidated appeals we are asked to review the Fayette Circuit Court's decision finding Kentucky's death penalty statute unconstitutional as to defendants who were between the ages of eighteen (18) and twenty-one (21) at the time of their offense. Before reaching this significant inquiry, it is incumbent that we consider whether the issue is properly before us.

"Considerations of propriety, as well as long-established practice, demand that we refrain from passing upon the constitutionality of an act of [the legislature] unless obliged to do so in the proper performance of our judicial function . . . ." Blair v. United States, 250 U.S. 273, 279 (1919); accord Louisville/Jefferson Co. Metro Gov't v. TDC Group, LLC, 283 S.W.3d 657, 660 (Ky. 2009) (recognizing this Court's "practice of avoiding constitutional questions" unless judicially necessary). See also Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Auth., 297 U.S. 288, 346 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring) (listing rules used to avoid constitutional questions). As a threshold matter, Kentucky courts do not have constitutional jurisdiction to adjudicate a question raised by a litigant who does not have standing to have the issue decided. Commonwealth Cabinet for Health & Family Servs., Dep't for Medicaid Servs. v. Sexton by & through Appalachian Reg'l Healthcare, Inc., 566 S.W.3d 185, 195 (Ky. 2018). Because the Appellees have yet to be adjudicated guilty and the Commonwealth's power to punish has yet to be invoked, we conclude the question whether Kentucky's death penalty is unconstitutional as to the age-based group identified by Appellees is currently not justiciable. For context, we

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discuss briefly the parties' positions on the constitutional issue raised before turning to the mandatory considerations of standing and ripeness.

Under Kentucky law, a person convicted of a capital offense, may be sentenced to death pursuant to Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 532.030. Imposition of the death penalty, however, is subject to the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution which, via the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits states from imposing cruel and unusual punishments.4 Roper, 543 U.S. at 560 (citations omitted). "While the State has the power to punish, the Amendment stands to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards." Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100 (1958). The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" "reaffirms the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all persons." Roper, 543 U.S. at 560. Recognizing that the Eighth Amendment "is not fastened to the obsolete but may acquire meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice," Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 378 (1910), the United States Supreme Court has adopted "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" as a measure to enforce the Constitution's protection of human dignity and to determine which punishments are so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual. Trop, 356 U.S. at 100-01.

A trio of United States Supreme Court decisions, Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988), Stanford, 492 U.S. 361, and Roper, 543 U.S. 551, have

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applied society's evolving standards of decency to address the question...

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