Death Penalty

Delaware Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Judges say death penalty violates 6th Amendment right to a jury


Brian Baer/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Delaware's use of the death penalty is unconstitutional, the state's Supreme Court has ruled.

Because judges, not juries, have the power to sentence convicts to death, the penalty is a violation of the Sixth Amendment, the court ruled. The question of Delaware's use of the death penalty was prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that found Florida's death penalty to be unconstitutional for the same reason.

The court's ruling was unanimous.

"If the right to a jury means anything, it means the right to have a jury drawn from the community and acting as a proxy for its diverse views and mores, rather than one judge, make the awful decision whether the defendant should live or die," wrote Chief Justice Leo Strine in the opinion.

"Put simply, the Sixth Amendment right to a jury includes a right not to be executed unless a jury concludes unanimously that it has no reasonable doubt that is the appropriate sentence," Strine concluded.

There are 32 states that use the death penalty, but Alabama is the only other state in the country where judges have the authority to issue death sentences, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Delaware General Assembly will have to decide whether to reinstate the death penalty with juries having the final say.

The last execution in Delaware took place in 2012, when 28-year old Shannon Johnson was executed via lethal injection for the murder of Lakeisha Truitt. The state has executed 16 people since the death penalty was reinstituted at the federal level in 1974. There are 18 people on Delaware's death row, but it's not immediately clear if they will be given new sentences or new trials.

The ruling in Delaware is the latest blow to states' ability to put criminals to death.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 8-1, that Florida's death penalty was unconstitutional. Juries in Florida were allowed to make recommendations, but the final decision was left to a judge.

In response to that ruling, Florida stayed two planned executions and the state Supreme Court is now deciding if the 330 inmates on the state's death row should get new sentencing trials.

In April, an Oklahoma grand jury investigating the cause of several botched lethal injections released a scathing report detailing the use of incorrect drugs that caused excruciating pain, and the cavalier attitude of state officials who went ahead with executions even though they knew the drugs were wrong.

Louisiana and Ohio have announced temporary shut-downs of their execution chambers due to drug shortages and several other states have considered using alternative methods like the electric chair and the gas chamber.

In November, voters in California will have the opportunity to vote on Proposition 62, which would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. A second initiative, Proposition 66, would speed up the process of executing California's death row inmates in the name of saving money.