Delaware's death penalty law is unconstitutional in light of a US Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, the state's high court ruled Tuesday. In a 148-page opinion, a majority of Delaware Supreme Court justices said the state law violates the US Constitution because it allows a judge to sentence a person to death independently of a jury's recommendation, the AP reports. The court said the law is unconstitutional because it allows a judge, independently of the jury, to find the existence of one or more aggravating circumstances weighing in favor of the death penalty, and because it does not require jurors to be unanimous in deciding whether any aggravating circumstances exist. It allows the judge, not the jury, to make the crucial final determination on whether aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating factors, thus mandating a death sentence.
The "awful decision whether the defendant should live or die" must be made unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury, rather than by one judge, the court said. Democratic Gov. Jack Markell praised the ruling. "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," he said in a statement. Santino Ceccotti, a lawyer with the Delaware public defender's office who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said it remains to be seen whether the ruling could be applied retroactively to the 13 men currently on Delaware's death row, but now that the scheme in Delaware is unconstitutional, the charge will have to be changed from capital murder in all cases where prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty. (Florida overhauled its death penalty system to allow the state to resume executions.)