Equal Justice USA » State courts wrestle with U.S. Supreme Court death penalty rulings. Now up: Delaware!
by Mona Cadena
On June 16, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Rauf v State, a case that will decide the future of Delaware’s death penalty. This case is the latest ripple effect from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hurst v Florida ruling earlier this year, which struck down Florida’s death penalty and impacts other states, including Delaware.
The Delaware Repeal Project, Murder Victims Family Members for Reconciliation, and Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty worked together to organize a silent vigil outside the court, and packed the courtroom in Dover as lawyers argued the constitutionality of Delaware’s capital sentencing statute. Repeal supporters from across the state bore witness to the proceedings, showing the strong support for ending Delaware’s broken and possibly unconstitutional death penalty.
Why Delaware? Why now?
In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v Florida that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional because it minimized the role of juries in deciding death sentences. The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees a trial by jury, but under Florida’s stricken death penalty law, the jury’s decision between the death penalty and life without parole is only a non-binding recommendation to the judge. Hurst is the latest in a series of decisions by the Supreme Court making clear that a jury, not a judge, must determine whether a crime warrants death.
Hurst matters to Delaware. Delaware’s statute isn’t a mirror of Florida’s old one, but both states, as well as Alabama’s, share qualities that make them outliers compared to the rest of the country. Delaware and Alabama (and previously Florida) are the only states where juries’ sentencing recommendations are not binding and are not required to be unanimous. That’s why the Delaware Supreme Court halted executions and active death penalty cases immediately following the Hurst decision, so they could explore the impact of Hurst on their state’s law.
During the June 16 hearing, lawyers sparred with the justices on how Hurst impacts Delaware’s death penalty, at times wading into the legal weeds of what the Sixth Amendment guarantees really mean. Predictably, the State argued that the impact of Hurst is narrow and Delaware should get back to the business of executing. Lawyers for the defendant argued that Hurst, in conjunction with previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions, renders Delaware’s capital sentencing scheme unconstitutional.
It’s a nail biter until the court rules!
It’s difficult to predict how the court will decide. Courts rule on their own time, so we have no way of knowing when the decision will come down. But we do know that these arguments were fast tracked, suggesting the court will rule in 30 – 90 days. Until then, cases stay on hold and all eyes remain on the Delaware Supreme Court.