Kentucky’s early history with the death penalty included many public hangings in the nineteenth century. While outlawed in 1880, public hangings were reinstated in 1920 for rape, and then finally abolished in 1938 after a public hanging reportedly witnessed by over 20,000 people. This execution is the last recorded public execution in the U.S. Kentucky also holds the infamous record for the most executions in one day – July 13, 1928, when seven men were executed by electrocution.

In 1964, Kentucky Governor Ned Breathitt convened a panel of distinguished Kentuckians to study the death penalty and make a recommendation regarding its use. The majority of that panel voted to recommend abolition of the death penalty. Kentucky’s General Assembly did not act on that recommendation and it stayed in place, but went unused, until the Furman ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1972 which struck down several states’ death penalty laws as unconstitutional.

Kentucky lived without the death penalty for another three years until the U. S. Supreme Court’s Gregg decision in 1975. In December that year, Governor Julian Carroll signed a bill passed during a special session of the state legislature reinstating the penalty.

In an effort to limit the effects of racial bias in the application of the death penalty, Kentucky adopted the “Racial Justice Act” in 1998 which allows judges in capital trials to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty.

In 2000, anti-death penalty activists began a more determined push to abolish the death penalty, galvanized by the disturbing execution of Harold McQueen in 1997.  For the past two sessions of the General Assembly activists have advocated for passage of legislation to end the death penalty entirely, and to end it for severely mentally ill persons. While not yet successful, the ground work has been laid and there is increasing momentum to do something in the state about this penalty.

New polling data to be released on Monday August 1 reveals that Kentuckians generally agree that the death penalty is costly, risks killing innocent persons, is imposed by a flawed system and should be replaced by life without parole and other lengthy prison terms.  To read the full press release please click here.


Action item Update from Kentucky

From KCADP, “A sitting Kentucky judge, Davies Circuit Judge Jay Wethington, has called for an end to the death penalty in Kentucky according to newspaper accounts of his remarks. You can read the full story here or a summary of what he said in this post on our website

In his remarks Judge Wethington refers to the high cost of prosecuting death cases. And he should know. Before becoming a judge, he was a prosecuting attorney for the Commonwealth and actually tried cases in which the death penalty was sought.

I am writing with the hope that you will want to write a letter to one or both of the two newspapers whose links are below. It is very important that the public hears from you at this time, because it is possible our opponents will attack this judge’s comments.

You don’t have to live in the area to write. All you need to do is be brief and send a short letter that states that you agree with the judge and give the chief reason you feel that way. I want to repeat that this is very important for the cause and the value of your taking action is immeasurable.

CMN State Spotlight- June 2013
“Education and conversation will be the key for Catholic involvement in abolishing the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

View the Spotlight

CMN State Spotlight- January 2012
“Astute observers believe Kentucky is on the brink of a breakthrough that will advance the cause of abolition significantly. If true, this will help us all.”

View the Spotlight

Death Penalty Information Center Page




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