Delaware high court says death penalty violates the rights of a jury

The Delaware Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty statute unconstitutional in a landmark decision, saying it violates the Sixth Amendment.

Suchat Pederson/The Wilmington News-Journal/AP
A group protests Delaware's death penalty outside Delaware's Legislative Hall, in February. The Delaware Supreme Court ruled the death penalty statute unconstitutional Tuesday.

Delaware's Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional Tuesday, finding it in violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury.

The court found that the statute was unconstitutional as it gives judges, not juries, the final say in imposing a death penalty. Judges were able to override the jury's recommendation of life in prison. 

"If the right to a jury means anything, it means the right to have a jury drawn from the community and acting as a proxy for its diverse views and mores, rather than one judge, make the awful decision whether the defendant should live or die," wrote Chief Justice Leo Strine Jr.

The case rises after the US Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the Florida's statute, which also gave judges the final say, was unconstitutional. Delaware and Alabama were the only two other states at that time to allow judges to overrule the jury's recommendation of life.  

In a dissenting opinion, Justice James Vaughn Jr. wrote that Delaware's statute differed from Florida's as a person is not eligible for the death penalty unless a jury unanimously finds beyond a reasonable doubt that there is at least one aspect of the case that invokes the statute. 

In its decision, the court essentially sent the death penalty statute back to the state's legislative branch, the General Assembly, which has been split on the issue in the past. Previous attempts to abolish the death penalty in the Assembly have failed.

"Because the respective roles of the judge and jury are so complicated ... we are unable to discern a method by which to parse the statute so as to preserve it," the court ruled. 

Death penalty supporters want the General Assembly to edit the statute so the death penalty can continue, as the (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal reported. However, opponents were able to pass a bill to abolish the death penalty in the state Senate in 2015, which narrowly lost in the House.

"Our end goal is to ensure that no death sentences are handed down in the future, and if the Supreme Court's decision accomplishes that, then that is an important consideration," Rep. Sean Lynn, who sponsored the bill in the House, told The News Journal. He said they needed to review the decision before deciding how to move forward. 

Gov. Jack Markell, another opponent of the death penalty, expressed satisfaction with the decision. 

"I applaud the Supreme Court’s finding that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional," Governor Markell said in a statement. "As I have come to see after careful consideration, the use of capital punishment is an instrument of imperfect justice that doesn’t make us any safer."

The state's last execution was in 2012, and there are currently 13 men on death row. It is unclear what will happen to them, as the court did not comment on if the decision should be applied to them.  

"That is something that will be addressed in due time," Santino Ceccotti, a lawyer for the Delaware public defender, told the News Journal. "But, we know that all of the cases pending in the Superior Court after this decision was rendered are no longer going to be charged as capital cases."

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