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Delaware Supreme Court strikes down state death penalty law

The Delaware Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the state’s death penalty statute unconstitutional because it allows a judge rather than a jury to make factual findings in capital cases.

Delaware law allows judges in capital cases to determine facts that can bring about a death sentence. A January U.S. Supreme Court ruling held that the Sixth Amendment requires juries to make all of those factual findings, thus invalidating Delaware’s death penalty law, the court determined.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Hurst v. Florida that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a trial by jury in criminal cases, “requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”  

“Because the respective roles of the judge and jury are so complicated under § 4209, we are unable to discern a method by which to parse the statute so as to preserve it,” wrote Delaware Chief Justice Leo Strine Jr.

It would be up to the state legislature to write a new statute should the court’s ruling stand, Strine wrote.

In a statement, Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, urged state residents to oppose any legislative effort to restore the death penalty.

“We call on all Delawareans to honor this ruling by our highest court and oppose any effort by the General Assembly to ‘fix’ our death penalty statute,” MacRae said. “The death penalty is an antiquated system broken beyond repair. It has no place in our criminal justice system.”

Nicole Byers, communications assistant to Delaware Attorney General Matthew Denn, said the Delaware Department of Justice “is reviewing the decision.”

The Delaware case, Benjamin Rauf v. State of Delaware was brought by defendant Benjamin Rauf, a Temple University Law School graduate charged with first degree murder for allegedly killing a law school classmate.

Since Florida changed its law earlier this year, Delaware and Alabama have been the only states that continue to allow judges to override jury verdicts in capital cases, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that provides legal representation to low-income defendants.