Judge puts death penalty cases on hold

DOVER — At least eight Kent County capital murder cases were put on hold Monday as the Delaware Supreme Court considers whether the state’s death penalty statute is constitutional after a recent federal ruling.

Superior Court President Judge Jan Jurden issued the order which affects at least 40 cases being handled by the state’s Office of Defense Services.

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Jan Jurden

New Castle County had 22 cases stayed, Sussex County 10.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman said the Department of Correction has no pending executions and is unaffected by the stay.

The temporary stay was ordered as the state Supreme Court analyzes a Jan. 12 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found Florida’s capital sentencing unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment.

The Sixth Amendment “requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” the U.S. Supreme Court determined.

In Delaware a judge can override a jury’s recommendation of life for a death sentence, which has not yet occurred.

The federal ruling prompted Superior Court Judge Paul Wallace to request the Delaware Attorney General’s and Public Defender offices to examine the matter and assist in forming questions to present to Delaware’s Supreme Court.

The matter of Benjamin Rauf, accused of a 2015 murder in which Delaware will pursue as a capital case, is the basis for five Superior Court certified questions presented to the Supreme Court on Jan. 28.

The questions are regarding judge and jury capabilities in a capital murder case under the Sixth Amendment and are “directly relevant” to each matter before the court, including those “pending and scheduled for trial and/or penalty hearing before” Superior Court, according to Judge Jurden.

Briefs to the Supreme Court are due by April 14.

“A temporary stay … is warranted to ensure the application of the law consistent with the Supreme Court’s determination of the certified question,” Judge Jurden wrote.

Other stays occurred in 2002 and 2003 as the Supreme Court considered the validity of capital sentencing procedures, Judge Jurden said.

The Delaware Department of Justice declined comment on the stay.

Chief Public Defender Brendan O’Neill said it was “prudent to call timeout on capital cases. It makes little sense to spend time, energy, effort and resources pursuing these cases when their constitutionality may be in question.”

Of the 40 capital cases handled by the offices of the Public Defender and Conflicts Counsel, Mr. O’Neill said some have not yet reached indictment into Superior Court.

Mr. O’Neill described the matter at hand as “long overdue.” He said he hoped “the Supreme Court answers the certified questions in a way that renders the death penalty unconstitutional.”

Kent County capital trials scheduled for this year include cases against Isaiah McCoy and Jamie Baker, with Sussex County cases involving Joshua Dutton, Richard Robinson, Steven Kellam, Carlton Gibbs and Damon Bethea.

On Jan. 28, a death penalty repeal bill was defeated in the Delaware House of Representatives by a 23-16 vote. Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, has said he will sign the repeal legislation if it reaches his desk.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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