Supreme Court vacates death sentences for Powell and 12 others

DOVER — The Delaware Supreme Court ruled Thursday the death sentence for convicted murderer Derrick Powell must be vacated.

Although the court specifically addressed Powell, it also said its August ruling of the unconstitutionality of the state’s capital punishment statute was a “watershed” one that must be applied retroactively.

It appears, thus, that the other 12 men on death row will instead have their penalty changed to life in prison, although they may have to formally appeal their death convictions.

Powell, sentenced to death in 2011 for the 2009 killing of Georgetown police officer Chad Spicer, was appealing his punishment after the court’s August ruling. Justices heard arguments last week and released their decision Thursday, unanimously concluding Powell could not be executed after being sentenced under a statute since thrown out.

While the news was welcome for some, others disagreed.

“I think justice for the family and justice for the victims of these crimes is definitely not being served by having these sentences that were duly handed down overturned, but that’s the system that we live in right now,” Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican who attended the hearing last week in support of the Spicer family, said Thursday.

The August decision is a “watershed rule of criminal procedure,” meaning it meets the standard to apply retroactively, the justices wrote in their findings Thursday.

Derrick Powell

Before the summer ruling, “the burden of proof was governed by the lesser standard of a preponderance of the evidence set forth in Delaware’s death penalty statute,” they wrote.

In prior cases where the Delaware Supreme Court threw out the death penalty, justices ruled it applied retroactively, meaning the individuals on death row at the time had their sentences changed to life in prison.

August’s ruling came about after a similar federal Supreme Court decision. Delaware justices found the state’s death penalty violated the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees right to a trial by jury. The law did not require the jury to rule unanimously on whether aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating factors and gave the judge final discretion to sentence death.

Chief Public Defender Brendan O’Neill, whose office represented Powell when he was charged with murder, applauded the decision.

“I think the Delaware Supreme Court made the right decision. He was sentenced to death under a death penalty scheme that was unconstitutional, so I think it appropriate that the court not allow the state to execute him,” he said.

“No doubt Mr. Powell committed a horrible crime for which he’s going to spend the rest of his life in jail but I think we need to keep in mind that five of the jurors who heard that case voted for a life sentence.”

The Department of Justice declined to comment.

Several justices appeared skeptical of the arguments set forth by the state last week, a fact noted by Sen. Pettyjohn, who said he “almost expected the ruling” handed down Thursday.

While Delaware currently has no death penalty, 15 Republican lawmakers announced in August they intend to bring legislation to reinstate it. The House of Representatives voted down a repeal attempt last year, but the Senate may have the votes to block a bill bringing back capital punishment.

Gov.-elect John Carney, a Democrat, said in October he would “probably” veto legislation reinstating capital punishment.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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