BY MIKE STUNSON,
Two men charged with the 2015 murder of University of Kentucky student Jonathan Krueger were ruled mentally competent in an evaluation ordered by a judge as the two fight the possibility that they may face the death penalty.
Efrain Diaz, 23, and Justin Smith, 21, had medical, psychological, psychiatric and medical evaluations done on them last fall at the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center in LaGrange. Diaz did not want the evaluation, according to at least one set of court documents. Smith wanted his own representative present during the review at the state psychiatric center. Both were expected to have separate evaluations by experts affiliated with defense teams.
The reviews are connected to efforts to avoid the death penalty in the case because the men were younger than 21 when the killing occurred, according to court records. Their clients brains weren’t fully developed, defense attorneys previously argued.
After reviewing the findings and the reports of the evaluations, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone said Monday Diaz and Smith were competent.
“I do believe that Mr. Diaz is capable of appreciating the seriousness and nature of the proceedings and the consequences of the charges he is facing,” Scorsone said. “I also think he is able to participate in his own defense to assist his counsel.”
Scorsone also shared similar sentiments regarding Smith.
A third person, Roman Gonzalez, was also charged with the murder of Krueger. Because he was 17 at the time of the shooting, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. The death penalty is not allowed for those younger than 18 at the time of their crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that execution of that age group was cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the constitution.
Lexington police say Krueger was walking home with a friend on East Maxwell Street in April 2015 when he was confronted by the defendants, all armed, in a robbery attempt. Diaz and Smith later told police they think it was Gonzalez who fatally shot Krueger.
In addition to murder, Diaz, Smith and Gonzalez were charged with two counts of first-degree robbery. Smith was also charged with evidence tampering and fleeing police.
On Monday, Scorsone set a four-week trial to begin March 11, 2019, for Diaz, Smith and Gonzalez. But the trial date has been delayed multiple times.
One holdup has been the death penalty. The prosecution is appealing a ruling by Scorsone that the death penalty was unconstitutional in the case of a 21-year-old who was just over 18 when he allegedly murdered a gas station attendant. Travis Bredhold’s defense team successfully asked Scorsone to extend the ban on the death penalty to those 21 and younger when they committed crimes. That ruling, if it stands, could be applied to the defendants in the Krueger slaying.