Delaware death penalty ruled unconstitutional

Rev. Donald Morton

Rev. Donald Morton

In a split decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled the state’s death penalty violates the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

In an opinion issued Tuesday, the state’s highest court decided that Delaware’s death penalty is in violation of the Sixth Amendment’s protection, which guarantees the right to a trial by jury.

The Supreme Court ruling follows a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court finding that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional because the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to impose a death sentence.

In their opinion, Chief Justice Strine, and Justices Holland and Seitz wrote that “because the Delaware death penalty statute does not require juror unanimity, it is unconstitutional.”

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The decision is a victory for death penalty opponents who had been unsuccessful in getting state lawmakers to repeal Delaware’s death penalty, despite vocal demonstrations inside and outside Legislative Hall in Dover.

After a repeal bill was defeated by the state House in January, State Rep. Sean Lynn predicted this day would eventually come.

“This is going to happen,” Lynn said in January. “It’s unfortunate we won’t be the first state to repeal in 2016, but it’s going to happen either by the courts or by the legislature.”

Delaware Governor Jack Markell praised the ruling in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “As I have come to see after careful consideration, the use of capital punishment is an instrument of imperfect justice that doesn’t make us any safer.” Markell said he would have preferred the legislature act to change the law, rather than the judiciary. “While I would have supported abolishing the death penalty legislatively, it is my hope that today’s decision will mean that we never see another death sentence in our state.”

The ball is now in the courts of death penalty supporters to reinstate Delaware’s capital punishment provision. In their ruling, the state Supreme Court wrote, “The decision whether to reinstate the death penalty—if our ruling ultimately becomes final—and under what procedures, should be left to the General Assembly.”

You can read the full Delaware Supreme Court decision here. 

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