Delaware Supreme Court Holds Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional


Yesterday, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty statute after finding that the statute violates the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

The decision in Rauf v. State addresses the United States Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida, in which the Court struck down Florida’s capital sentencing scheme because the “Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

Writing for the majority, Delaware Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. wrote, “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.”

The court concluded that Delaware’s statute, like the Florida statute struck down in Hurst requires that findings necessary to impose a death sentence be made by a judge rather than the jury. “Thus, our statute cannot stand,” the court held. “Although states may give judges a role in tempering the harshness of a jury or in ensuring proportionality, they may not execute a defendant unless a jury has unanimously recommended that the defendant should suffer that fate.”

As the court observed, only three states (Alabama, Delaware, and Florida) had capital sentencing schemes that permitted a judge to override a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence before Hurst. After Hurst, Florida abolished judge override.

Yesterday’s decision leaves only Alabama with a capital sentencing statute that fails to ensure that the jury, not a judge, finds each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. After the Supreme Court decided Hurst, it vacated three Alabama death penalty convictions “in light of Hurst,” casting doubt on the continued validity of Alabama’s statute after Hurst.

A bill to abolish the death penalty came very close to passing the state Senate last year. Delaware Governor Jack Markell said he hoped yesterday’s ruling will mean no new death sentences in his state.

“I applaud the Supreme Court’s finding that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional,” Governor Markell said 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.”