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Delaware Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty, Following Hurst Decision

by Derek Gilna

On August 2, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court, in Rauf v. State of Delaware, struck down the state’s death penalty in a closely-watched decision. Benjamin Rauf was charged with first-degree felony murder, and the state indicated it would seek capital punishment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 12, 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which invalidated that state’s death penalty, prompted the Superior Court to seek guidance from Delaware’s highest court before proceeding to trial.

Hurst held that the “Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.22]. According to the ruling in Rauf, the Superior Court certified five questions of law to the state Supreme Court.

In a 148-page opinion that traced the history of capital punishment in the United States, the Delaware Supreme Court followed the holding in Hurst, finding the state’s death penalty statute did not “sufficiency respect ... a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.”

The first question the Court considered was whether “a sentencing judge in a capital jury proceeding, independent of the jury, [may] find the existence of ‘any aggravating circumstance,’ statutory or non-statutory, that has been alleged by the State for weighing in the selection phase of a capital sentencing proceeding.” The Supreme Court held that doing so would be unconstitutional.

The second question was whether a unanimous jury was required to find “any aggravating circumstance” beyond a reasonable doubt for imposition of the death penalty. The Court found in the affirmative, concluding, “Because the Delaware death penalty statute does not require juror unanimity, it is unconstitutional.”

The third question, regarding whether a jury was required to determine if “aggravating circumstances found to exist outweigh the mitigating circumstances found to exist” before a death sentence is imposed, the Court again held that because the Delaware statute “does not require the jury to perform this function, it is unconstitutional.”

In questions four, regarding the need for a jury weighing aggravating versus mitigating circumstances to “make that finding unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt,” and five, concerning the structure of the state’s death penalty sentencing process, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded that the “respective roles of the judge and jury are so complicated...,” it saw no way to preserve the death penalty statute in its current form and suggested that changes should be left to the state’s General Assembly.

“Obviously, the court embraced the arguments that we advanced, and I think this is the pulse of how the jurisprudence is heading regarding capital sentencing,” said Santino Ceccotti, an attorney for the Delaware Public Defender’s Office, who was assisted in the case by ACLU legal staff and other death penalty opponents. “Delaware decided to take the next step, rather than take a step backward,” he added. See: Rauf v. State, 145 A.3d 430, 2016 Del. LEXIS 419 (Del. 2016). 

 

Additional sources: http://courts.delaware.gov, www.delawareonline.com, www.aclu.org, www.npr.org, www.nbcnews.com

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