Commonwealth v. Guernsey, 2015-SC-000259-TG AND

Decision Date20 October 2016
Docket Number2015-SC-000259-TG AND,2015-SC-000260-TG AND,2015-SC-000261-TG,2015-CA-000722-MR AND 2015-CA-000723-MR,2015-SC-000262-TG
Citation501 S.W.3d 884
Parties Commonwealth of Kentucky, Appellant v. Robert Guernsey, Appellee and Commonwealth of Kentucky, Appellant v. Trustin Jones, Appellee
CourtSupreme Court of Kentucky

COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: James Hays Lawson, William Robert Long, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General, Andy Beshear, Attorney General of Kentucky

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE, ROBERT GUERNSEY: Russel James Baldani, Tucker Richardson, III, Baldani, Rowland & Richardson

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE, TRUSTIN JONES: Karen Shuff Maurer, Assistant Public Advocate, Department of Public Advocacy


This case, on transfer from the Court of Appeals pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Civil Procedure (CR) 74.02, presents a challenge to an order of the Fayette Circuit Court which excluded the death penalty as a potential sentencing option for Robert Guernsey and Trustin Jones. Specifically, on the motions of Guernsey and Jones and prior to trial, the circuit court concluded that the death penalty would be a disproportionate punishment in this prosecution for murder and first-degree robbery. We find error in the circuit court's pretrial ruling excluding the death penalty and, accordingly, remand this case to the Fayette Circuit Court with directions to vacate its order.


In October 2013, the Fayette County Grand Jury indicted Robert Guernsey for murder and first-degree robbery and Trustin Jones for murder, first-degree robbery, and tampering with physical evidence. Two months later, the Commonwealth, under Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 532.025, filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Guernsey and Jones identifying murder committed in the course of first-degree robbery as the statutory aggravator.

In April 2015, Jones moved to preclude the Commonwealth from seeking the death penalty as a possible sentencing option in his trial.1 Thereafter, the circuit court conducted an evidentiary hearing on Jones's motion, which Guernsey orally joined. After hearing evidence about the proof to be presented at trial and argument from counsel, the circuit court granted the motion and entered an order excluding the death penalty as disproportionate.

In its order, the circuit court emphasized the frequency with which it had conducted capital trials. According to the circuit court, over 75 percent of the capital cases that it presided over at trial had featured first-degree robbery as the aggravating circumstance and more than half of those cases involved the sale or possession of narcotics. The circuit court observed that each of those trials resulted in a jury recommendation of a term of years, even in those cases where the jury returned a conviction for murder.

With this background established, the circuit court then briefly summarized the facts of the underlying case. After concluding that the "facts of the case are not unique," the circuit court focused on the drug trafficking aspect of the anticipated proof. Specifically, the circuit court noted that: the victim had a significant amount of narcotics on his person at the time of his death; the victim was in contact with more than one individual who had been labeled as a "drug dealer"; and messages between the victim and those individuals concerned the resupply of narcotics.

In its order, the circuit court offered examples of death eligible cases in which the jury recommended a penalty other than death. In the first case, Ordway v. Commonwealth, 391 S.W.3d 762 (Ky. 2013), Ordway and two men were traveling in a car from Louisville to Lexington to engage in the sale of narcotics. According to Ordway, a dispute arose and he proceeded to kill the two men allegedly in self-protection. Id. at 772. Ordway was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence was reversed by this Court. Id. at 771–772. After a retrial, in which Ordway was again eligible for a death sentence, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a period of twenty-five years.2 The circuit court also referenced three cases, which were capital cases that did not involve narcotics. In each of those cases, according to the circuit court, the jury declined to recommend the imposition of the death penalty.3 The circuit court finally referenced one recent capital case from Fayette Circuit Court that it did not personally preside over, Commonwealth v. Joel Searcy.4 While Searcy was charged with a capital offense, he was convicted of a lesser included offense, and received a sentence of twenty-five years' imprisonment.

With this background, the circuit court stated that a death sentence has never "been recommended by a jury and upheld on appeal in a case involving actual or suspected drug trafficking." According to the circuit court the reason for the absence of death sentences in cases involving the trafficking of narcotics is that "[t]he death penalty is the ultimate punishment and should be reserved and sought in cases involving only the most egregious set of facts one could possibly imagine."

The circuit court then noted while a Commonwealth's Attorney has discretion by statute to determine whether to seek the death penalty in all cases that statutorily qualify, the current Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney seeks the imposition of the death penalty for every case that meets the statutory criteria. In the circuit court's view, this practice unnecessarily consumes time and resources that could be spent on other cases. Finally, the circuit court, relying on its history on the bench, noted that it had:

heard some of the most egregious facts resulting in the loss of innocent life that do not trigger the ‘statutory’ definition of a capital case because of the absence of an aggravator. In those cases, defendants have received a term of years or at most life. In the capital cases involving heinous acts or egregious facts, a death qualified jury has imposed a term of years or at most life without the possibility of parole following a conviction of intentional murder.

"Based on this history," the circuit court concluded that death sentences in the underlying case for either Guernsey or Jones would be disproportionate.

Subsequently, the Commonwealth filed an interlocutory appeal in the Court of Appeals pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Criminal Procedure (RCr) 12.04 and KRS 22A.020(4). We accepted transfer as the issue raised is of great and immediate public importance and arose in capital litigation, an area exclusively within the appellate jurisdiction of the Kentucky Supreme Court. Skaggs v. Commonwealth, 803 S.W.2d 573 (1990).

I. The Circuit Court Erred by Concluding Pretrial that the Imposition of the Death Penalty Would be a Disproportionate Penalty.

The Commonwealth maintains that the circuit court erred in concluding prior to trial that the death penalty would be disproportionate in this prosecution for murder and first-degree robbery, a circumstance in which the Kentucky General Assembly has specifically authorized capital punishment. Additionally, to the extent the circuit court focused on the actual or suspected drug activity involved in this case as a fact scenario militating against a death sentence, the Commonwealth insists the circuit court clearly erred. In its Order Excluding Death Penalty, the circuit court concluded that, based on its knowledge of the facts following a pretrial hearing, capital punishment would be constitutionally disproportionate in this particular case and perhaps also comparatively disproportionate pursuant to KRS 532.075(3). The Commonwealth maintains that in either sense of disproportionality the circuit court erred, at least at this juncture in the proceedings, and its order should be set aside. On de novo review of the purely legal issues presented, Osborne v. Commonwealth, 185 S.W.3d 645 (Ky. 2006), we agree. Ultimately this case turns on the authority of a trial court to exclude capital punishment in a particular case where the Commonwealth has given notice of its intent to seek the death penalty and, more specifically, whether that authority can be exercised prior to hearing the evidence presented in the guilt phase of the trial. Before addressing that ultimate question, we briefly address the two proportionality concepts applicable in capital prosecutions.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution mandates that a death sentence be proportionate to the crime the defendant committed. Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 592, 97 S.Ct. 2861, 53 L.Ed.2d 982 (1977) (A death sentence is unconstitutional if it "is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime."). On review the United States Supreme Court has focused on "the gravity of the offense and the severity of the penalty" in evaluating the appropriateness of a death sentence for a particular offense. Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37, 42–43, 104 S.Ct. 871, 875, 79 L.Ed.2d 29 (1984). See also, Getsy v. Mitchell, 495 F.3d 295 (6th Cir. 2007) ("Proportionality as defined by the Supreme Court evaluates a particular defendant's culpability for his crime in relation to the punishment that he has received.").

In addition to this constitutional requirement for an inherently proportional sentence, KRS 532.075 mandates comparative proportionality review in all Kentucky cases in which the death penalty is imposed. This type of review is performed to ensure that a death sentence is not disproportionate relative to other sentences imposed for similar crimes.5 Under KRS 532.075(3)(c), the Kentucky Supreme Court is required to consider "[w]hether the sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant."

Comparative proportionality review is not mandated by the Eighth Amendment, rather it is a requirement imposed solely by statute...

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5 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Bredhold
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky
    • March 26, 2020
    ...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).ANALYSIS In these consolidated appeals we are asked to review the Fayette Circuit Court's decision finding Kentucky's d......
  • White v. Com. of Ky., 2014-SC-000725-MR
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky
    • August 24, 2017
    ...United States Constitution mandates that a death sentence be proportionate to the crime the defendant committed." Commonwealth v. Guernsey , 501 S.W.3d 884, 888 (Ky. 2016) (citing Coker v. Georgia , 433 U.S. 584, 592, 97 S.Ct. 2861, 53 L.Ed.2d 982 (1977) (A death sentence is unconstitutiona......
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    • United States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky
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