Delaware’s Supreme Court has found the state’s use of the death penalty as “unconstitutional” in what is being described as a big win in the case against the death penalty in the state. Delaware justices decided on Thursday that the state’s law violates the United States Constitution in allowing judges to sentence the death penalty independently and without the input of a jury. The justices found that too much sway is given to the judge in death penalty cases in the state and that needs to change.
According to the Guardian, the views of the Delaware justices were presented in a 148-page opinion that detailed how the state’s current use of the death penalty violates the United States Constitution. The court found this to be the case because a judge is allowed to sentence the death penalty independently and without the input of jurors. If the judge is able to find the existence of one or more aggravating circumstances weighing in favor of the death penalty, they can independently pass the death sentence.
Justices went on to claim that this is a key flaw in Delaware’s use of the death penalty. The law ultimately only takes into account the judge’s view of what an aggravating circumstance is, without any third party input needed in taking the decision to put a convict to death, which is a clear violation of the United States Constitution, according to the Delaware Supreme Court.
That said, not all of the Supreme Court justices were on board with the ruling. Justice James Vaughn Jr. claimed the state’s use of the death penalty to be fair in comparison to other states, with a person having to be found guilty unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury before they can be considered for the death penalty. With that in mind, Vaughn claims the state’s use of the death penalty to be fair. However, his views were ultimately overruled by the bench’s other justices.
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According to Slate Magazine, Delaware Governor Jack Markell welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling, describing capital punishment as “an instrument of imperfect justice.” He continued:
“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.”
Markell, Delaware’s Democratic governor is a well-known opponent of the death penalty and its use in his state.
A spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Justice said in an email that the agency is reviewing the decision. However, the attorney general’s office could now be considering a legal case against the decision in order to appeal the ruling in a federal court and ensure the state is able to continue with its current death penalty practice.
Santino Ceccotti, one of the lawyers from the Delaware public defender’s office, responsible for arguing the case before the Supreme Court, welcomed the court’s decision. However, he noted that there’s still a fair way to go before the death penalty is abolished completely in the state of Delaware. He further said he hopes that the ruling with fall in support of the 13 men currently on death row in Delaware, saying “What we know for sure is that the scheme in Delaware is unconstitutional … and that will have a direct impact on cases that are pending”.
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