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Kentucky Capital Punishment Laws

The death penalty is the most severe punishment for crimes committed in Kentucky. Generally, the death sentence is reserved for cases involving an adult who murders another person and where no mitigating circumstances (such as self-defense, the murder was committed in the “heat-of-passion,” the murder was of a long-time abuser, etc.) exist. Kentucky law requires at least one aggravating factor (showing maliciousness, such as a previous murder conviction, killing during a rape, sodomy, or arson, kidnapping, or killing an on-duty cop, etc.) before capital punishment or life imprisonment can be imposed. Jurors can recommend a defendant be sentenced to death, life imprisonment without probation or parole, or life imprisonment without parole until 25 years have been served.

Research consistently shows race, in particular of the victim, plays a significant role in the conviction and sentencing to death of defendants of color in the U.S. Kentucky was the first state to pass a law to try to address this problem. The Racial Justice Act permits judges to consider and determine whether race was the basis of the decision to seek or impose the death sentence, generally because it was a significant factor in that decision. So far, other states haven’t followed Kentucky’s progressive lead.

The following table outlines the death penalty laws in Kentucky.

Code Sections Kentucky Revised Statutes Sections:
431.220 – Execution of Death Sentence
431.240 – Governor to Fix Time, Administrative Hearings, Transfer to Psychiatric Facility
532.025 – Presentence Hearings, Juvenile Court Records, Aggravating or Mitigating Circumstances & Jury Instructions
640.040 – Capital Punishment of Youthful Offenders
Is Capital Punishment Allowed? Yes.
Effect of Defendant's Incapacity The execution will be stayed or suspended if the person is found insane, at least until the person is restored to sanity.

In addition, if a woman is pregnant then the execution is suspended until the child is delivered.
Minimum Age Kentucky law says no offender under 16 can be sentenced to capital punishment. However, this law can’t be enforced on 16 or 17 year olds. The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2005 that execution of individuals who committed the crime under the age of 18 is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. This overturned a previously decision from a case out of Kentucky, Stanford v. Kentucky.
Available for Crimes Other than Homicide? Yes, Kentucky permits the death penalty for kidnapping, if it causes a death, thus being like homicide. If the victim not released alive or dies later due to serious physical injuries received during the kidnapping or not being released to a safe place or in a safe manner.
Method of Execution Kentucky uses only lethal injunction as the execution method now. However, if an offender received his or her death penalty sentence before March 31, 1998, the offender gets to choose either electrocution or lethal injection. If the offender doesn’t choose at least 20 days ahead of the execution, lethal injection will be used as the default method.

If lethal injection is found unconstitutional, then the prior version of the execution statute applies, and electrocution will be used, unless, of course, the death penalty is abolished in the U.S (again).
Who May Attend Executions The only execution attendees can be:
  • The executioner, warden, and guards
  • The sheriff from the county where offender was convicted
  • Kentucky Department of Corrections commissioner or representatives
  • The prison doctor and chaplain
  • A member of the clergy
  • Three members of the victim’s family, and
  • 9 news media representatives (almost all from Kentucky newspapers or stations)

Audiovisual equipment is prohibited.

Being charged with a crime that could result in the death penalty is a frightening prospect. If you or a loved one are charged with any serious crimes like murder, you need to immediately speak to an experienced Kentucky criminal defense attorney or your public defender.

Note: State laws change all the time. Therefore, it’s important to verify any laws you are researching by conducting your own legal research or contacting a knowledgeable attorney.

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