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Delaware Supreme Court strikes down death penalty

Tom Byrne/Delaware Public Media

In a 3-2 decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.

The 98-page opinion from Chief Justice Leo Strine found that certain aspects of Delaware’s statute conflict with a recent U.S. Supreme Court Case striking down Florida’s capital punishment program.

The court said the final decision to hand down a death sentence must be reached unanimously by a jury instead of by a judge.

Justice Karen Valihura issued a split opinion, while Justice James T. Vaughn Jr. wrote a dissenting report.

Santino Ceccotti, a public defender who argued the case in June, says he’s pleased with the decision.

“This court understands that just as there are fatal flaws in the Florida statute, there were similar flaws in the Delaware statute,” Ceccotti said.

Prosecutors will have to re-evaluate 39 pending capital murder cases and it’s unclear whether those found guilty on death row will get new trials or if their sentences would be commuted to life in prison.

State Department of Justice spokeswoman Nicole Byers says the agency is reviewing the ruling.

The current law can’t be tweaked to make it constitutional, according to the opinion.

State lawmakers would have to pass an entirely new statute, which looks unlikely as the senate has twice voted to repeal capital punishment in the past four years.

Backers of a pro-repeal movement say they're elated.

"[The Delaware Supreme Court] did what the [state] House of Representatives didn't have the guts to do," said Sen. Karen Peterson (D-Stanton), the chief sponsor of recent repeal efforts.

Peterson announced her retirement towards the end of the legislative session in June to the surprise of her colleagues. She says she considered running for another four-year term to make a third attempt at abolishing the death penalty in Delaware.

"I just trusted that the Supreme Court would do it and so they have."

Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover) helped Peterson lead an unsuccessful fight in the House this year to repeal the death penalty.

He says he has mixed emotions about the ruling, including joy and sorrow.

Lynn notes it's the fourth time the death penalty has been overturned in Delaware, but hopes this will be the final ruling.

“Proponents of the death penalty need to understand that it’s like slavery – that once society kind of embraces the fact that we ought not be killing people, it’s kind of moving society forward,” he said.

Should a future repeal bill have made it to the governor's desk, it might not have gotten a signature. Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover South) voted against such measures in 2015 and 2013. 

In an interview with Delaware Public Media three weeks ago, Congressman John Carney (D) hesitated to take a solid position on the issue, saying he was still considering it.

After the decision was released, he issued a statement saying, "Over the last several years, after a lot of study and reflection, I've come to the conclusion that it's a punishment that is too flawed for it to be considered fair or just."

Gov. Jack Markell (D), who came out in favor of abolishing capital punishment in 2015, called the concept "an instrument of imperfect justice". 

"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 wrote in a statement.

Should Attorney General Matt Denn (D) choose to appeal the decision to a federal court, Lynn says he has confidence that Chief Justice Strine's analysis will be upheld.

"Obviously, we're disappointed, but not surprised," said Tom Brackin, president of the Delaware State Troopers Association, which lobbied heavily to defeat both recent repeal efforts. "I think our court kind of leans that way so that doesn't surprise me too much."

Brackin would not comment on whether his or other law enforcement lobbying groups would push new death penalty legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Delaware is now the 20th state to have abolished capital punishment.

Death Penalty Delaware

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