DOVER, Del., Aug. 2 (UPI) — The Delaware Supreme Court issued a ruling Tuesday that said the state’s law that allows capital punishment, as it is presently configured, violates the U.S. Constitution.
The high court issued its decision in the test case of a Temple University law school graduate accused of killing a classmate last year.
The problem with Delaware’s law, the court concluded, is that its language allows judges to overrule juries and hand out death sentences — a violation of rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says juries must unanimously vote for and independently qualify a convict to be put to death.
Delaware’s law states that judges are not bound by juries’ sentencing verdicts in cases they are not constitutionally able to apply the death penalty — thus giving them an unconstitutional final say, the court decided.
Tuesday’s decision follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that struck down a similar provision in Florida’s death penalty law. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that have language in the law that allows judges to supplant a jury sentence of life in prison with death.
Delaware can continue to put prisoners to death for capital crimes, but only if the General Assembly passes a revised statute that removes the language allowing judges to overrule juries.
Some in Delaware, however, believe that getting that cooperation from lawmakers isn’t exactly a slam-dunk. Last year, for example, the Delaware Senate passed a measure to abolish capital punishment in the state altogether — a bill that was narrowly defeated in the House.
Also, Gov. Jack Markell is a death penalty opponent.
“I applaud the Supreme Court’s finding that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional,” the governor said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”
As a result of Tuesday’s ruling, all current capital cases in Delaware will no longer be tried as death penalty cases, the state public defender’s office said.
It remains unclear, however, what will happen to the 13 inmates on death row in Delaware. The high court’s ruling did not state whether the decision should be applied retroactively. Delaware has not executed a prisoner in four years.
“That is something that will be addressed in due time,” public defender Santino Ceccotti told the News Journal Tuesday. “But we know that all of the cases pending in the Superior Court after this decision was rendered are no longer going to be charged as capital cases.”
The Delaware Department of Justice, which can appeal the ruling, said it is reviewing the high court’s decision.