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Delaware Supreme Court Declares Death Penalty Retroactively Unconstitutional

On December 15, 2016, Delaware’s Supreme Court issued a unanimous 15-page decision that held the unconstitutionality of the state’s death penalty statute should be applied retroactively to prisoners previously sentenced to death. [Also, see p. 54.]

While the ruling only mentioned Derrick Powell, 29, the state’s youngest death row prisoner, it effectively commuted the sentences of twelve men on Delaware’s death row to life without parole. It was consistent with two prior state Supreme Court decisions from 1973 and 1977 when three and nine prisoners, respectively, were removed from death row after the Court declared capital punishment in the state unconstitutional.

Delaware’s chief public defender, Brendan O’Neill, said of the most recent ruling, “It seems only just to correct a sentence of death, which was imposed under a system that has been deemed unconstitutional.”

The decision resulted from a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down Florida’s practice of allowing judges – not juries – to pronounce death sentences. Alabama and Delaware were the only other states that permitted judges to override a jury’s recommended sentence of life.

Powell’s attorney, Patrick Collins, applauded the ruling. “Obviously we are very pleased and relieved by today’s decision,” he said. “Our Supreme Court today confirmed the fundamental right to a jury trial in Delaware, which our state has cherished from the very beginning.” See: Powell v. State of Delaware, 2016 Del. LEXIS 649 (Del. 2016). 


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Related legal case

Powell v. State of Delaware