A silent vigil was held outside the Delaware Supreme Court as the court weighs the constitutionality of capital punishment in Delaware.
The ongoing debate over Delaware's death penalty has made its way to the state's highest court.
For nearly a year, the discourse has drawn protests and emotional pleas at Legislative Hall, but the issue, now sitting squarely before the Delaware Supreme Court, drew a much more pensive tone in a Dover courtroom on Wednesday, as the court heard arguments over whether the way people are sentenced to death in Delaware is constitutional.
The quandary before the court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges - not juries - the final say to impose a death sentence. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life. Delaware judges, however, have not been using that power.
Confusion over the rulings implication in Delaware led the state's Supreme Court to agree to hear arguments and weigh in.
In front of a packed courtroom Wednesday, a prosecutor argued to the Supreme Court that the state's death penalty process avoids the pitfalls that made Florida's statute infirm, especially since juries make the initial decision about whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty in Delaware. A public defender countered that the state violates the Sixth Amendment when juries are routinely told that their sentencing decision is merely a recommendation.
"The most basic tenant of the [Florida] decision is that fact finding subjecting the defendant to the death penalty must be made by the jury," said Assistant Public Defender Santino Ceccotti "That does not occur in this state."
Delaware is 1 of 32 states with capital punishment. The last execution in the state was in 2012, when Shannon Johnson, 28, was killed by lethal injection.
All pending capital murder trials and executions for the 14 men on death row are currently on hold while the state considers the constitutionality issue.
The process for sentencing someone to death in Delaware requires multiple steps. Once a person is found guilty of 1st-degree murder, the jury must unanimously agree that the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that a least once of 22 statutory aggravating factors exists.
Then, each juror has to decide whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors. That decision does not need to be unanimous, and the judge is not bound by those findings. The judge then has the final authority in sentencing someone to death.
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg argued that Florida's death penalty process looks similar to an older version of Delaware's statute that existed before the General Assembly in 2002 changed it in response to another court ruling. The more recent ruling was a way to get Florida in line with the prior decision, Lugg said.
Ceccotti countered that legislative change is still needed for Delaware's law to pass constitutional muster. Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. repeatedly questioned how, if the court were to find the statute unconstitutional, would the legislature write a new statute with a judge still involved in any aspect of the sentencing.
Ceccotti responded, saying that to be in line with the Florida decision, the fact finding can not be in the hands of judges.
Florida and Alabama are also still grappling with the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Last week, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments over whether the death penalty statute lawmakers in Florida hurriedly passed after the January decision is now acceptable. Like Delaware, Florida's new law requires juries to unanimously determine at least one aggravating factor before defendants are sentenced to death. Alabama has been far less willing to act, but the U.S. Supreme Court has told the Alabama appeals court multiple times recently to reconsider its statute.
The state court's future decision will be significant for Delaware. A bill to abolish the death penalty failed in the state House of Representatives earlier this year, but instead of filing a motion for reconsideration of the bill, the bill's sponsors said in March they would suspend legislative action until the Delaware Supreme Court rules.
Abraham J. Bonowitz, Delaware's death penalty abolition coordinator for Amnesty International, said at a silent vigil with about 15 people outside the Supreme Court building Wednesday that the court's decision could help toward the goal of abolishing the death penalty.
"All of us here are praying that the Delaware Supreme Court finds ... that the death penalty is unconstitutional," he said. "And then it will be on the legislature to fix it, rather than end it. We should be able to stop a fix as it's always easier to stop bad legislation than to pass progressive legislation."
Source: delawareonline.com, June 15, 2016