Delaware Supreme Court overturns death penalty

DOVER — The Delaware Supreme Court overturned the state’s death penalty Tuesday, ruling it violates the U.S. Constitution.

In a 148-page opinion, which includes dissension from one justice and partial dissension from another, the state’s highest court concluded capital punishment as practiced in Delaware is in conflict with the Sixth Amendment, which provides for right to a jury trial.

Advocates in Delaware have attempted to abolish the death penalty for years, but the issue took on renewed focus in January. That month, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Florida’s capital punishment law, which mandated a judge, not a jury, find aggravating factors needed to sentence a person to death.

Delaware had a similar system, in which a jury provides non-binding recommendations on sentencing death for convicted murderers and a judge makes the final decision. Unanimity is needed to determine if there are any aggravating circumstances but not whether they outweigh mitigating factors.

Considerations for aggravating elements include, among others, the murder being “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman,” the victim being pregnant and the crime being committed for hire.

Following the federal court decision, Superior Court Judge Paul Wallace asked the state Supreme Court to review the capital punishment statute. In the case of Benjamin Rauf, who was charged with murder last year for allegedly killing Shazim Uppal, Judge Wallace requested justices answer five questions:

Can a judge, rather than a jury, find aggravating factors?

Must the jury rule unanimously to sentence death?

Does the Sixth Amendment require a jury find aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating factors?

Must the jury unanimously find aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating factors?

If any portion of the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional, can that portion be stricken without negating the entire law?

The issue was argued in front of the Supreme Court in June, with the Public Defender’s Office pushing for overturning the penalty and the state Department of Justice affirming its constitutionality.

Tuesday, the case of Rauf v. State of Delaware, was decided, with the majority of Chief Leo Justice Strine, Justice Randy Holland and Justice Collins Seitz determining a unanimous finding by a jury is required to sentence death.

With their ruling, justices struck down the death penalty as it is currently practiced.

“Because the respective roles of the judge and jury are so complicated under § 4209, we are unable to discern a method by which to parse the statute so as to preserve it,” Chief Justice Strine wrote, with Justices Holland and Seitz concurring. “Because we see no way to sever § 4209, the decision whether to reinstate the death penalty — if our ruling ultimately becomes final — and under what procedures, should be left to the General Assembly.”

Assistant Public Defender Santino Ceccotti, who argued in June the law violates the federal Constitution, said the Public Defender’s Office was “very, very pleased” with the finding.

Whether the 13 men on death row are still facing execution is up in the air now.

“It is a question that this decision doesn’t answer,” Mr. Ceccotti said, noting the office is in a “wait and see” mode.

The Department of Justice could still appeal the decision in federal court, but for now, spokeswoman Nicole Byers said in an email, the agency is analyzing the ruling.

Justice James Vaughn, who dissented in the ruling, wrote the state’s law differed from Florida’s, which did not mandate jurors concur on one specific aggravating factor.

“The jury made no express finding as to the existence of any specific statutory aggravating factor, which means that some jurors could find the existence of one statutory aggravating factor while others could find the existence of a different factor. Since the jury’s role was purely advisory, the judge could reject a jury finding that no statutory aggravating factor existed and sentence the defendant to death based on his or her own findings,” he wrote.

“That cannot happen under Delaware’s statute. In Delaware the 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. If the jury does not find the existence of a specific statutory aggravating factor unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, the process stops, and the judge sentences the defendant to life imprisonment.”

Justice Karen Valihura, meanwhile, wrote, “as currently interpreted, the Sixth Amendment does not require jury unanimity in state criminal trials” but agreed a judge cannot independently find aggravating factors and inconsistencies in the law must be fixed by the General Assembly, not the courts.

According to the state Department of Correction, Delaware’s first execution was in 1662. The state repealed the death penalty in 1958, but legislators restored it three years later.

Lawmakers have attempted to overturn the death penalty in each of the past two legislative sessions. Repeal legislation fell short on passage in the House earlier this year after passing the Senate.

Should the court’s ruling not be overturned at a higher level, it will be up to lawmakers to craft a new capital punishment law, an effort that may lack the necessary support to succeed in re-instating the death penalty.

Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, praised the ruling 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,” he said.

“The important concerns of death penalty proponents must be balanced by the examples of flawed testimony, innocent people on death row being exonerated and other facts that weigh strongly against the use capital punishment. 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.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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