Delaware High Court Overturns Death Penalty

     WILMINGTON, Del. (CN) — Delaware’s top judges ruled Tuesday that the state’s death-penalty statute is unconstitutional because a unanimous jury verdict is not required to sentence a defendant to death.
     The Delaware Supreme Court ruled that the law violates the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution because a judge rather than a jury has the ultimate power to hand down the death penalty.
     “I embrace the notion that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury extends to all phases of a death penalty case, and specifically to the ultimate sentencing determination of whether a defendant should live or die,” Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. wrote for the majority.
     The ruling is the result of a response to five certified questions put to the Delaware Supreme Court by the U.S. Supreme Court following its Jan. 12 decision in Hurst v. Florida. That decision held that “Florida’s capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because ‘the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.'”
     Before the Hurst decision, Florida, Delaware and Alabama were the only three states that allowed judges to override a jury’s capital punishment decision. Now only Alabama employs that sentencing scheme.
     In Delaware, the jury acted in an advisory role to the court by making a recommendation for death or a life sentence. But the ultimate sentencing decision was left in the hands of the judge.
     Strine wrote that, “If the core reasoning of Hurst is that a jury, rather than a judge must make all the factual findings ‘necessary’ for a defendant to receive a death sentence, then Delaware’s statute cannot stand.”
     Although the majority allowed that its reading was “contestable,” Strine himself found it “impossible to embrace a reading of Hurst that judicially draws a limit to the right to a jury in the death penalty context to having the jury make only the determinations necessary to make the defendant eligible to be sentenced to death by someone else.”
     In the bulk of the 148-page decision, Strine took an historical approach to the majority’s decision-making process to emphasize the importance of the jury’s role from our country’s founding to the present.
     “The jury’s historical role as an important safeguard against overreaching in this most critical of contexts was recognized at the founding, and prevails in most states today, making our own state one of the few outliers,” Strine wrote.
     Delaware Gov. Jack Markell applauded the state high court’s finding in a statement, saying that he hoped the ruling will mean the state will never see another death sentence.
     This ruling means that all pending cases in the state’s Superior Court will not be charged as capital cases. The opinion did not address how the cases of 13 men on Delaware’s death row would be handled.
     As the statute reads now, a jury has to unanimously agree that the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that a person found guilty of first-degree murder fits at least one of 22 statutory aggravating factors. Those factors must also outweigh the mitigating factors by a majority decision of the jury. But the final decision in sentencing is made by the judge, so that the jury is reduced to an advisory role.
     “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,” Strine wrote.
     Two of the Supreme Court judges dissented from the majority. Justice Karen Valihura only differed in her reasoning and approach but reached the same conclusion as the majority, while Justice James Vaughn Jr. dissented outright.
     In his dissenting opinion, Vaughn found that under Hurst, a jury need not find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. Delaware’s statute differs importantly form Florida’s, Vaughn said, in that a jury “must find the existence of at least one specific statutory aggravating factor unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt in order for the defendant to be eligible to receive the death penalty.”
     It is now up to the Delaware General Assembly to change the statute’s language to allow use of the death penalty or to abolish the practice entirely.

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