Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional in Delaware

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Delaware Supreme Court building.

On Aug. 2, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in the case Rauf v. State of Delaware that the state’s death penalty statute violates the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution by granting judges too much leeway in sentencing. The law in question allows judges to impose capital punishment independent of a jury’s decision.

The Delaware Supreme Court cited a Jan. 12, 2016 decision by the US Supreme Court, which stated: “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

In the Delaware Supreme Court majority opinion, Chief Justice Leo Strine, Jr., wrote that “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.”

In his dissent, Delaware Supreme Court Justice James Vaughn, Jr., stated he was “satisfied that Delaware’s death penalty statute complies with the Sixth Amendment as the law on that amendment is currently interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Delaware currently has 14 prisoners on death row. The executions of these prisoners, as well as all pending capital murder trials, are now on hold in the state until the Delaware Attorney General decides whether or not to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court.

The death penalty has been abolished in 19 states. In 31 states (including Delaware, for the moment, pending possibility of appeal), the death penalty remains legal for crimes including murder, treason, and espionage. The federal government continues to retain the death penalty for 41 capital offenses.

The 2016 presidential candidates are split on the issue: Clinton and Trump both support keeping capital punishment, while Johnson and Stein both oppose it.

Sources:

Delaware Supreme Court, Rauf v. State of Delaware, courts.delaware.gov, Aug. 2, 2016

Erik Eckholm, “Delaware Supreme Court Rules State’s Death Penalty Unconstitutional,” nytimes.com, Aug. 2, 2016

Fox News Politics, “Delaware Supreme Court Says State’s Death Penalty Unconstitutional,” foxnews.com, Aug. 2, 2016

Eyder Peralta, “Delaware Supreme Court Finds State’s Death Penalty Law Is Unconstitutional,” npr.org, Aug. 2, 2016

US Supreme Court, Hurst v. Florida, supremecourt.gov, Jan. 12, 2016