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Professor Amy Halbrook

For most lawyers with death-penalty practices, a case pending in the Supreme Court of Kentucky represents a potentially landmark decision. For Chase College of Law Professor Amy Halbrook, it is that and a link between when she was a law student and now a professor.

 As a law student, Professor Halbrook worked with a professor at Northwestern University School of Law on an amicus curiae brief in a case before the Supreme Court of the United States that would become the landmark decision that prohibited a death-penalty sentence for crimes committed by youths 17 years old or younger. Now, as a professor, she has involved Chase students in the research for an amicus brief she filed with the Supreme Court of Kentucky in a case that could extend the death-penalty prohibition in Kentucky through the age of 20.

“Looking back on my experience, I worked with a professor and other students on an amicus brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons when I was a law student,” she says. “I have been interested in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence since then, especially as it relates to juveniles and young adults. I was really happy to share the same kind of experience with Chase students. I think the experience is immeasurably valuable, both in skill development and in the pride students take in advocating for a cause.”   

The case, Commonwealth v. Bredhold, was pending before the Supreme Court of Kentucky in mid-March, following oral arguments in mid-September. At issue: Is the death penalty a cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on people who committed capital-punishment-eligible crimes when they were 18 through 20 years old? A trial court at Lexington, Kentucky, had rule in 2017 that it is; the commonwealth appealed. And in late June 2018, Professor Halbrook, who is director of the Chase Children’s Law Center Clinic, filed an amicus in the case, on behalf of the National Association for Public Defense and the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

That amicus argues for an exemption from a death penalty through age 20. The rationale: 18- to 20-year-olds have distinct legal and cultural statuses, are developmentally different from individuals 21 and older, and a categorical exemption from the death penalty for them is appropriate because the penalty is infrequently administered in that age range and serves no legitimate penological goal.

“The amicus brief I submitted in support of Mr. Bredhold focused on the ways in which youths aged 18 through 20 are a unique class because they are treated differently under many Kentucky and federal laws than adults aged 21 and over. The brief highlighted academic research related to emerging adulthood to support the idea that youths aged 18 through 20 are subject to different cultural norms and expectations than older adults,” Professor Halbrook says.

When the court rules, Professor Halbrook hopes to be able to say she has helped influence two death-penalty decisions.