Delaware Supreme Court hears death penalty arguments

From left, Justice James T. Vaughn Jr., left, Justice Randy J. Holland and Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr., listen to oral arguments in the Rauf vs State of Delaware. The court is weighing whether Delaware’s death penalty statute is constitutional in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme. (Pool photo by Jason Minto/The News Journal)

From left, Justice James T. Vaughn Jr., left, Justice Randy J. Holland and Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr., listen to oral arguments in the Rauf vs State of Delaware. The court is weighing whether Delaware’s death penalty statute is constitutional in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme. (Pool photo by Jason Minto/The News Journal)

DOVER – After two sides argued their cases Wednesday morning, justices on Delaware’s highest court departed to consider the constitutionality of the most severe punishment of all – death.

The Delaware Supreme Court is weighing the merits of a judge’s role in capital punishment sentencing and how it relates to the right to a jury trial.

“We understand how important this is (to all you),” said Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. before exiting the packed courtroom with his four Supreme Court colleagues.

The issue arose after the U.S. Supreme Court determined in January that Florida’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional and that “the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

After the ruling, all death penalty trials in Delaware were stopped until more clarity was brought to the state’s process and how it relates to the constitution.

According to the Supreme Court in an order, there are over two dozen capital cases pending in Superior Court, four scheduled for trial, in less than 120 days.

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Santino Ceccotti prepares to address the Delaware Supreme Court in the Rauf vs State of Delaware. The court is weighing whether Delaware’s death penalty statute is constitutional in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme. (Pool photo by Jason Minto/The News Journal)

Questions to the court were raised in the currently pending murder case of Benjamin Rauf.

On Wednesday, attorneys presented their beliefs before the court in a scheduled 60-minute session, at times engaging in question and answer discussions with the justices.

Since a jury decides whether a case is death penalty eligible in Delaware, the state maintains that constitutional requirements are currently met. Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg argued for the state on Wednesday.

Mr. Lugg said Delaware’s sentencing scheme, which was revised in 2002 in response to a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling, meets all of the elements outlined by the Supreme Court in the Florida decision, according to the Associated Press.

“The fundamental right to a jury is provided by the Delaware statute,” he said.

The court is expected to issue its ruling within 90 days, the AP said.

 

In Delaware, judges have the final say on whether a death sentence is ordered; a jury must find at least one statutory aggravating factor unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death penalty eligible.

In Florida, judges had the responsibility to find any “aggravating factors” that qualify it for possible capital punishment sentencing.

Assistant Public Defender Santino Ceccotti argued for the appellant.

“The Sixth Amendment requires not a judge, but a jury, to find each fact,” he said.

The scene outside

Outside the courthouse on The Green, a sign-holding Sandy Nelson of Dover stood with at least 25 supporters of death penalty repeal.

“I don’t want people being killed, they might be proven innocent later in life,” she said. “I’m doing my small little part to support this cause.”

Making her weekly trip north to join other repeal supporters, Seaford resident Barbara Malone said, “It’s imporant to be out here because I have a son and two grandsons and our boys are at risk.

Delaware Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg addresses the justices on Wednesday. He said the state’s death penalty meet all the elements outline by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Pool photo by Jason Minto/The News Journal)

Delaware Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg addresses the justices on Wednesday. He said the state’s death penalty meet all the elements outline by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Pool photo by Jason Minto/The News Journal)

“I believe it’s important to reform the criminal justice system in many ways. The death penalty is really a harsh and inhumane way to punish people.”

Horace Knight Jr., of New Castle, believes repeal forces have exhibited a consistent presence that’s being heard by the state’s key decision makers.

“I feel like we have a consistent presence and there’s always movement in the discussion,” he said. “We’ve formed strong coalitions and now the case is being heard in the Supreme Court. I believe progress is being made but it will not come quickly.”

After his cousin was murdered, Mr. Knight said, he became Delaware coordinator for the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation organization designed to support those who have lost a loved one.

“The death penalty does not provide closure for one family, it only extends the suffering of another,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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