The information on this page provides a brief overview of capital clemency in Kentucky and is not intended to serve as the basis for a capital clemency petition or campaign. For additional information, please see the full Kentucky Clemency Memo prepared by the ABA Capital Clemency Resource Initiative:

Kentucky Capital Clemency Memo

The Power Defined

Section 77 of the Kentucky Constitution gives the governor the sole power to grant clemency.

The Decision Maker(s)

In Kentucky, the governor is not directed by the state constitution or statute to follow any specified procedures in reviewing an application for clemency in a death penalty case. However, the governor may, at his or her discretion, request that the Kentucky Parole Board (“Board”) investigate the case and provide a report regarding the appropriateness of a commutation; essentially providing a recommendation. While research suggests that the governor typically does not involve the Board in capital clemency decisions, the following is a description of the Board’s makeup, as well as some of the internal procedures it must follow.

The Board consists of nine full-time members who are appointed by the governor, who selects each from a list of three names provided by the Kentucky State Corrections Commission. The members serve four-year terms until their successors are appointed and confirmed by the state senate. Each member must have had at least five years of experience in penology, corrections, law enforcement, sociology, law, education, social work, medicine, or a combination thereof, or have served at least five years previously on the Board. No more than six Board members can be of the same political party. The governor may not remove any member of the Board except for disability, inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.

The Board is required to keep records of its acts, electronic records of its meetings, written records of individual members’ votes, and the reasons for denying parole to prisoners. It is also required to submit to the governor an annual report with data about its operations and the cases it reviewed at the end of each fiscal year. These records must be available to the public. Given that the Board is not required to review clemency petitions in capital cases and typically does not do so, its annual reports usually do not provide any information directly relevant to death penalty cases.

How Petitions are Brought

To apply for clemency, an applicant must request an official form from the governor’s Office of the General Counsel by mail, phone, or fax.

The petition requires the following information:

  1. General information including social security number, marital status and number of children;
  2. Criminal information, including a complete list of past and pending felony and misdemeanor charges and any parole or probation violations;
  3. Educational information, including the highest level of education completed;
  4. Employment information, including current and most recent employers;
  5. Military information, including branch of service and type of discharge;
  6. Contact information for three non-family references and emergency contacts.

In addition to the information listed above, the applicant must provide (1) copies of previous clemency applications (if any); (2) a separate letter that describes the reason(s) he or she is seeking relief and states the extenuating circumstances supporting the basis for the request, (3) a minimum of three letters of recommendation in support of the request for relief, which may be submitted from all sources including but not limited to neighbors, employers, co-workers, pastors, church members, elected officials, judges, prosecutors, or family members.

Historically, some Kentucky governors have required the form petition while others have not. Counsel should check with governor’s office about their particular requirements before preparing a clemency petition. Litigators have submitted clemency petitions that provide different and additional information.

Although indigent defendants or death row prisoners are entitled to “be counseled and defended at all stages of the matter…including revocation of probation and parole,” Kentucky has not promulgated any rules, regulations, laws, or procedures that require courts to appoint counsel to represent the Commonwealth’s death row prisoners petitioning for clemency.  In practice, however, the Department of Public Advocacy and the Louisville Metro Public Defender’s Office provide clemency representation to Kentucky’s death row prisoners, which includes drafting and researching clemency petitions and connected litigation, when appropriate.

Hearing Practice

Kentucky does not require the governor to hold a hearing or meet with the petitioner or his attorneys in advance of making a capital clemency decision. According to information from current capital practitioners in Kentucky, the governor’s office has not granted informal hearings to capital clemency petitioners in recent years. Attorneys representing capital clients in clemency typically still request a meeting with the governor’s office subsequent to submitting a clemency petition, however.

Responding to a Petition

After receiving a petition, the governor is required to make a decision and file a statement for the reasons for his decision, but there are no laws or regulations that dictate the timeframe in which the governor has to respond or when such a decision must be rendered. The governor frequently issues a press release to announce a particular decision rather than a more formal document explaining his rationale for denying the petition. Practitioners have reported that governors’ statements denying clemency are often accompanied by an announcement scheduling the petitioner’s execution.

Current Clemency Decision Maker(s)

File:Andy Beshear.png
Democratic Governor Andy Beshear

Andy Beshear was sworn in as the Democratic governor of the state of Kentucky on December 10, 2019. In one of his first official acts, he restored voting rights to more than 100,000 nonviolent offenders. (Kentucky is one of a handful of states that permanently disenfranchises felons). Governor Beshear previously served as Kentucky Attorney General, and is the son of former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear.

The current Kentucky Parole Board Members include: Ladeidra N. Jones (Chair), Brenda Beers-Reineke, Larry R. Brock, Bridget Skaggs Brown, Melissa Chandler,  Sharon Hardesty, Michael A. James, Sherri Lathan, and Patty Wininger.

Past Capital Clemency Decisions


Since 1976, Kentucky has granted clemency to four death row inmates. In 2003, before the U.S. Supreme Court held the death penalty unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, Governor Paul Patton commuted the sentence of Kevin Stanford to life without parole. Stanford had been convicted of murder, rape, and sodomy of a 20-year-old woman when he was 17. Governor Patton cited Stanford’s age at the time of the crime as the reason for the commutation.

Jeffrey Leonard (a.k.a. James Earl Slaughter)

In 2007, Governor Ernie Fletcher commuted Jeffrey D. Leonard’s death sentence to life without parole noting that Leonard was not provided with adequate representation at the time of his conviction. Leonard’s trial attorney, Fred Radolovich, was indicted on perjury charges for falsely claiming he had prior experience in death penalty cases. Leonard was originally convicted under the name James Earl Slaughter for murder and first degree robbery.

As one of his final acts, outgoing Republican Governor Matt Bevin issued two death-row commutations amid a flurry of largely unexpected clemency grants. Bevin used his executive authority to commute the sentences of Gregory Wilson and Leif Halvorsen, notably sentencing each to a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. These two capital clemency grants double the number of commutations Kentucky governors have provided death-row prisoners in the modern history of the death penalty.

Gregory Wilson

In commuting Mr. Wilson’s sentence, Governor Bevin wrote that “to say that his legal defense was inadequate would be the understatement of the year” and that “justice should be served on all sides. It was not.” Mr. Wilson was sentenced to death for the murder of Deborah Pooley in 1987, a crime committed together with his former girlfriend, Brenda Humphrey.

Evidence later emerged that Ms. Humphrey admitted to killing the victim, but she was convicted of a lesser offense and has since been released from prison. At trial, the court had difficulty securing an attorney for Mr. Wilson, posting a sign outside the office door begging for assistance. The attorneys who eventually represented Mr. Wilson did so despite having no capital case experience, and questioned no witnesses and essentially mounted no defense. It was later discovered that Ms. Humphrey – the main witness against Mr. Wilson at trial – had been having sex with another judge during the court proceedings. Despite these shocking facts, Mr. Wilson’s conviction and death sentence were upheld repeatedly on appeal.

Leif Halvorsen

Leif Halvorsen was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in a drug-fueled shooting rampage committed with a codefendant in 1983. According to his clemency petition, Mr. Halvorsen’s life began to unravel after his marriage ended due to his wife’s bipolar disorder and he was awarded custody of his two young children. Despite seeking treatment for drug addiction, Mr. Halvorsen continually relapsed and began abusing drugs more frequently, eventually culminating in the shooting deaths of the victims while under the influence of multiple substances. In the three decades since his conviction and death sentence, however, Mr. Halvorsen has, by all accounts, turned his life around in prison. He has earned two college degrees and serves as an advisor to young prison inmates who need guidance. He has also repeatedly voiced his remorse and deep regret for his crime. Prison officials, faith leaders, and others joined in support of his clemency petition. In commuting his sentence, Governor Bevin wrote that “Leif has a powerful voice that needs to be heard by more people.”

Denials (where newsworthy or controversial)

Kentucky’s clemency process has received negative media attention due to its lack of transparency regarding procedures, and because the governor holds absolute discretion in granting or denying clemency.

Additional Resources

For more information about Kentucky, including additional resources for practitioners and successful clemency petitions in the state, click here.

Page last updated on August 26, 2021

Important note

The information on this page provides a brief overview of capital clemency and is NOT intended to serve as the basis for a capital clemency petition or campaign.