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Delaware Supreme Court Strikes Down State's Death Penalty Law

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 03, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Delaware's highest court ruled that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional, which could signal the end of capital punishment in the state. The decision, based on the Supreme Court's invalidation of Florida's death penalty law, held that judges were given too great a role in imposing death sentences.

While Delaware could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or re-write the statute to comply with constitutional requirements, the state legislature's push to abolish capital punishment could be an indicator that the ruling will stand. Here's what the court said.

Saving Grace of the Sixth Amendment

Delaware's death penalty statute allowed judges to decide if the circumstances of a specific crime warranted the death penalty and permitted judges to overrule a jury decision and impose the penalty themselves. The Supreme Court, however, recently ruled "the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."

"Throughout our history," the Delaware Supreme Court's ruling stated, "capital sentencing has been a 'responsibility traditionally left to juries,' and the decision of whether a 'fellow citizen should live or die' has been considered a responsibility too great for any one person to make alone." The majority ruled, therefore, that "the Sixth Amendment right to a jury includes a right not to be executed unless a jury concludes unanimously that it has no reasonable doubt that is the appropriate sentence."

Death on the Decline

Delaware had just 14 prisoners on death row and had not executed a prisoner since 2012. A bill to repeal the state's death penalty statute was pulled from consideration to await the court's decision this week. And while Florida is attempting to rewrite its death penalty law, no similar effort is expected in the First State. Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty and many others have put executions on hold because of a scarcity of lethal injection drugs and disputes over execution procedures.

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