Delaware death penalty fight returns

 (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

A bipartisan group of Delaware lawmakers is backing legislation designed to reinstate the death penalty, which was struck down last August by the state Supreme Court.

Last summer, the Delaware Supreme Court effectively killed Delaware’s death penalty after finding the state’s capital punishment law did not follow the Constitution for several reasons. Those reasons include the fact that a judge, not a jury, was allowed to determine if there were aggravating circumstances to apply the death penalty. The court also ruled against the death penalty because a jury was allowed to find aggravating circumstances existed even if all jurors did not agree.

But legislation now being circulated in Legislative Hall in Dover would address the shortcomings found by the state’s highest court last year. Lawmakers like State Sen. Dave Lawson, R- Marydel, are working to get additional sponsors for the Extreme Crimes Protection Act. “These proposed changes would raise the imposition of such a sentence to a new level, removing what the court found objectionable and strengthening protections afforded defendants,” Lawson said.

Under the bill, the death penalty would only be applicable if a jury found its decision unanimously and “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A judge would have to agree with the jury’s decision that aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigating circumstances. A jury would be able to consider mitigating circumstances even if those factors had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

“While there are lingering questions about the equity of its application, that is a separate issue than determining if it should remain an option for those convicted of atrocious crimes,” said State Rep. William Carson, D- Smyrna. “Capital punishment has, and will continue to be, highly controversial and potentially divisive.”

For years, groups like Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty and Delaware Repeal lobbied lawmakers to outlaw capital punishment. Those groups celebrated the Supreme Court ruling last August, and now plan to fight against this new effort to reinstate the death penalty.

“There are a number of reasons why bringing back the death penalty is a bad idea,” said Delaware Chief Public Defender Brendan O’Neill. “Delaware should not once again put itself on the wrong side of history. There are no do-overs when it comes to the death penalty. The risks and costs are too great and the benefits too few.”

In December, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that its August decision declaring the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional is retroactive. That meant an inmate convicted of killing a police officer must be resentenced to life in prison, the justices said in the follow-up decision.

The ruling came in an appeal by Derrick Powell, who was convicted of killing Georgetown police Officer Chad Spicer in 2009, but it likely means that 11 other former death-row inmates also would be spared from execution.

Lawmakers will introduce the Extreme Crimes Protection Act early next week in the State House. It’s expected to be assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.