State Supreme Court Justices didn't filter their comments much during a hearing Wednesday that could let those currently on death row live the rest of their life in prison.
Earlier this year, the court ruled Delaware's capital punishment system unconstitutional because juries weren't the ones ultimately responsible for locking in a death penalty conviction.
Previously, juries decided whether a defendant was eligible for a death sentence, but then a judge weighed different factors to hand down his or her ruling.
The test case before the court is that of Derrick Powell, who shot and killed Georgetown police officer Chad Spicer in 2009.
His lawyer, Patrick Collins, says continuing to execute death row inmates who were convicted under an unconstitutional system flies in the face of precedent.
"Executing Derrick Powell would far and away be an extreme outlier as opposed to just about any other state that has considered the question," he said.
Justice Collins Seitz Jr. openly agreed later in the hearing.
"How could it ever be just to execute someone who was sentenced under a flawed statute? I don't understand how that's just," Seitz said.
Maryland legislatively abolished its death penalty in 2013 without including those already convicted and facing execution. Then Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) later commuted the sentences of the four men on death row to life in prison in 2015.
State prosecutors rebutted that these sentences should remain intact because this court previously said new rulings on constitutional issues can't necessarily be applied retroactively. There are 2 exceptions, but prosecutors argue they don't apply here.
After repeatedly interrupting during the state's presentation, Chief Justice Leo Strine told the deputy attorney general he had yet to flesh out his argument.
The state Supreme Court will issue its ruling in the coming months.
Source: delawarepublic.org, December 7, 2016
Delaware Supreme Court weighs fate of 13 on death row
Even though the Delaware Supreme Court did not immediately rule, some of the justices seemed swayed by arguments Wednesday that the 13 men on death row should not be executed in light of the court's finding the state's death penalty law unconstitutional in August.
As a prosecutor was peppered with questions about why the state wants to proceed with the executions, Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. summed up much of the sentiment, asking how the state can proceed under a flawed statute.
"Isn't death different?" he asked. "I don't understand how that is justice."
Deputy Attorney General John Williams argued to the justices in Dover that the court should apply a long-standing rule against retroactively applying a new ruling after a criminal case is completed.
Patrick Collins, the attorney arguing on behalf of 29-year-old Derrick Powell, who was sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of Georgetown police officer Chad Spicer, disagreed.
"It has long been a principle of constitutional law that death is different, and it is not just a hollow phrase," Collins said. "It means special procedural protections have to be in place to ensure that if death is going to be imposed, that it is only imposed when those constitutional protections have been afforded."
Wednesday's arguments stemmed from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that struck down Florida's death penalty law, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution by giving judges, and not juries, the final say to impose a death sentence.
Alabama and Delaware were the only other states that, like Florida, allowed judges to override a jury's recommendation of life.
The Delaware Supreme Court found that the state's capital punishment law was also unconstitutional. The move halted all future death sentences unless the General Assembly acts to change the current law.
The court on Wednesday heard arguments over whether the court's ruling should be applied retroactively to Powell and the others on death row.
Powell is Delaware's youngest inmate on death row.
In September 2009, he and 2 men arranged to rob another man during a marijuana deal. The robbery attempt went awry, and Powell fired at the fleeing man in the parking lot of a Georgetown McDonald's, according to court documents.
The incident led to a police chase that ended when Powell fired a shot at a police car, fatally wounding the 29-year-old officer and father, court documents said.
Powell was found guilty of 1st-degree murder and other charges in February 2011. He was sentenced to death in May of that year.
Delaware court mulls retroactivity of death penalty ruling
Delaware's Supreme Court justices are mulling whether their ruling declaring the state's death penalty law unconstitutional can be applied retroactively to a dozen men already sentenced to death.
The court heard arguments Wednesday in an appeal filed by Derrick Powell, who was sentenced to death in 2011 for killing Georgetown police officer Chad Spicer in 2009.
In August, a majority of the Supreme Court justices declared that Delaware's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it allowed judges too much discretion in sentencing and did not require that a jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant deserves execution.
Attorney General Matt Denn declined to appeal that ruling in federal court but said he believes that it cannot be applied retroactively to offenders already sentenced to death.
The court also heard an appeal by Otis Phillips, who was convicted of murder in the 2012 killing of soccer tournament organizer Herman Curry at Wilmington's Eden Park. He was also convicted of manslaughter in the death of 16-year-old soccer player Alexander Kamara.
In answering Phillips' appeal, prosecutors said that because his conviction is on direct appeal and not considered final, he is covered under an August state Supreme Court ruling declaring Delaware's death penalty unconstitutional.
Source: Associated Press, December 7, 2016
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