Attorneys argue over possible death penalty for suspects related to murder of UK student

Attorney Matthew R. Krygiel listens to questions after the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Thursday, September 19, 2019 at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Rick Childress

SOMERSET, Ky.—Attorneys argued before the Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday over whether to overturn a previous Fayette County court ruling which essentially barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against someone 18 to 21 years old.

At issue is a 2017 ruling that left Efrain Diaz and Justin D. Smith, both charged in the murder of UK student and Kernel photo editor, Jonathan Krueger, ineligible to be tried with the possibility of the death penalty.

Diaz was 20 at the time of the shooting and Smith was 18.

The Supreme Court should overturn the county ruling because other courts across the country have consistently held that only people under the age of 18 were decided too young to be tried for the death penalty, argued Matthew R. Krygiel, a state assistant attorney general. 

It’s unclear when the court will announce its opinion on the case.

Timothy G. Arnold, an attorney with the state Department for Public Advocacy argued on behalf of Diaz, Smith and Travis Bredhold. Bredhold was charged with murder in connection to a 2014 Lexington shooting when he was 18.

Arnold told the court that the county court decision should remain the same.

Recent developments in neurological research show that those between the ages of 18 to 21 are more likely to participate in risky, impulsive behavior and are less likely to fully consider the consequences of their actions, Arnold told the court. 

When Fayette Judge Ernesto Scorsone made the 2017 court ruling, he cited that same scientific evidence and wrote that those in that age group are more likely to be rehabilitated later in life.  

Scorsone made his decision in opposition to prior court decisions and “abused his power” when he ruled out the death penalty for that age group, Krygiel said. 

Thursday’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court are the latest development in a string of court hearings which have occurred since the death of Krueger in 2015. 

Krueger was shot and killed on East Maxwell Street in mid-April 2015. Diaz, Smith and Roman Gonzalez, Jr., who was 17 at the time, were all charged with first degree robbery and murder in connection with the shooting.