Delaware Court Tosses |State Death Penalty Law

     (CN) – Delaware’s death penalty law is unconstitutional due to a ruling earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.
     In a lengthy, 148-page opinion, a majority of Delaware Supreme Court Justices said the state law runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution because it allows judges to impose the death penalty independent of a jury’s recommendation.
     The majority also found the law flawed because it allows judges, rather than jurors, to determine whether aggravating circumstances in the case outweigh mitigating circumstances, thereby mandating a death sentence.
     The court said such decisions must be made by the jury, and that the decision must be unanimous and beyond a reasonable doubt.
     “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. for the majority.
     Unlike many other death-penalty cases that typically center on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Rauf v. Delaware revolves around the Sixth Amendment – the right to a jury.
     Delaware’s attorney general, Matt Denn, declined to comment on whether his office would appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court, stating that he was still reviewing the state court’s decision.
     Delaware is one of three states, along with Florida and Alabama, that did not require a jury to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances before sentencing a defendant to life imprisonment or death.
     These states allowed judges to impose sentences that did not reflect the jury’s decision — in addition to occasionally shifting the penalty from a life sentence to capital punishment.
     The Delaware legislature came short of abolishing the death penalty this year, but the debate ceased due to the pending ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.
     Eric Freedman, an expert on capital punishment at Hofstra University’s law school, told the New York Times that “this probably means, as a practical matter, the end of the death penalty in Delaware,” he said.
     The case in question involved Benjamin Rauf, a New Yorker who is charged with murdering another law school classmate in 2015 during a drug deal in Delaware. Delaware officials had said they were seeking the death penalty.
     Rauf’s lawyers argued that the state’s procedures violated Supreme Court requirements for the primacy of jury decisions in capital cases.
     Justice Karen Valihura concurred in part with the majority opinion but issued a partial dissent regarding jury unanimity and whether the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances must be done by a jury instead of a judge.
     Justice James Vaughn Jr. dissented, noting an important difference between Delaware’s law and a Florida sentencing scheme that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v Florida.
     Unlike under the Florida law, Vaughn said, a person in Delaware is not eligible for the death penalty until and unless a jury finds unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of at least one specific statutory aggravating factor.
     In Vaughn’s view, the Delaware death penalty statute conforms to the Sixth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
     Gov. Jack Markell applauded the ruling Tuesday.
     “While I would have supported abolishing the death penalty legislatively, it is my hope that today’s decision will mean that we never see another death sentence in our state,” Markell said in a prepared statement.

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