Delaware top court strikes down death penalty law as unconstitutional

[JURIST] The Delaware Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that the state’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional. Citing a January US Supreme Court decision [JURIST report] that found that Florida’s death penalty scheme violated the Sixth Amendment [text], the Delaware court found that the law gives judges too great a role in imposing the death penalty. The court concluded: There is no circumstance in which it is more critical that a jury act with the historically required confidence than when it is determining whether a defendant should live or die. If, as a majority of us have concluded, the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to make all the necessary factual determinations relevant to a capital defendant’s fate, there is no reason to depart from the long-standing beyond a reasonable doubt standard when the jury is making the crucial fact-laden judgment of whether the defendant should be executed. Put simply, 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.

Delaware’s attorney general has not yet indicated whether he plans to appeal, but an appeal could be unlikely to succeed given Supreme Court precedent.

Delaware’s legislation has voted to repeal the death penalty [JURIST report], but the legislation was put on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court decision. The death penalty has been abolished in 18 states, and other states have faced challenges over the availability of execution drugs. In June the US Supreme Court agreed to rule [JURIST report] on two death penalty cases in the coming term.

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