Lawmakers Seek to Revive Delaware Death Penalty - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Lawmakers Seek to Revive Delaware Death Penalty

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(Photo: MGN) (Photo: MGN)

DOVER, Del.- A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is backing a bill that would restore Delaware's death penalty.

Until last summer, Delaware was among the 31 states authorizing capital punishment for acts warranting the most extreme punishment. However, on Aug. 2, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down the statute. 

In a 3-to-2 decision in the case of Rauf v. State of Delaware, the justices ruled that the capital punishment statute violated a defendant’s right to “trial by jury” as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (Sixth Amendment). The issue came before the High Court following a ruling in January by the U.S. Supreme Court (Hurst v. State of Florida) that struck down a similar Death Penalty law in The Sunshine State.

In making their decision, the Delaware justices examined five questions regarding Delaware’s capital punishment law. Among other things, the high court found that the statute did not meet constitutional standards because it allows a judge, independent of the findings of a jury, to determine if any aggravating circumstances existed for applying the death penalty.

Additionally, the high court found fault with the law since it allowed a jury to express an opinion on the existence of aggravating circumstances for the application of capital punishment even when some jurors dissented. The prevailing justices also critically noted such findings could be based on a “preponderance of evidence” rather than the higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. 

The ruling led the Supreme Court in December to overturn the capital punishment faced by 12 men on Delaware’s Death Row, converting those sentences to life imprisonment without the possibility of release or reduction. 

While Delaware’s capital punishment law remains part of the Delaware Code, the Supreme Court’s decision left prosecutors unable to seek it at trial.
The proposed Extreme Crimes Protection Act, presently being circulated to state lawmakers for support, seeks to address the issues cited by the High Court.

Under the measure, capital punishment could not be imposed unless a jury unanimously and “beyond a reasonable doubt” found one or more aggravating circumstances that made the offense eligible for capital punishment.

  • A jury voted unanimously that the aggravating factors alleged by prosecutors had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that these circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors cited by the defendant.
  • In agreement with the jury, the presiding judge found that beyond a reasonable doubt the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances found to exist.
  • Additionally, the Extreme Crimes Protection Act would preserve an aspect of the existing code that works in favor of the defendant. A jury would continue to have the discretion to consider mitigating circumstances alleged by the defendant, even if the existence of such factors had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The bill has broad bipartisan support, with prime sponsorship shared between Republicans and Democrats in both legislative chambers. Among the measure’s initial primes are: State Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna; State Rep. John “Larry” Mitchell, D-Elsmere; State Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton-Lewes; State Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna; State Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel; and State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown.

Supporters note that even under the existing statute, no one subjected to capital punishment in Delaware has ever later been proven innocent of the offense for which they were convicted.

“Delaware has a long history of applying capital punishment cautiously, judiciously, and infrequently,” said State Sen. Dave Lawson. “These proposed changes would raise the imposition of such a sentence to a new level, removing what the court found objectionable and strengthening protections afforded defendants.”

“Capital punishment has, and will continue to be, highly controversial and potentially divisive,” said State Rep. William Carson. “While there are lingering questions about the equity of its application, that is a separate issue than determining if it should remain an option for those convicted of atrocious crimes.”

Sponsors of the Extreme Crimes Protection Act say its enactment would restore a needed punitive option to prosecutors.

“It is impossible to quantify a crime not committed, but I believe the threat of capital punishment has altered criminal behavior and saved lives,” said State Rep. Steve Smyk. “The reforms our bill will apply will restore an aspect of the Delaware Code that I believe deters crimes and protects the public.”
State Sen. Bruce Ennis said he understands the bill will spark an emotional debate. “We’re expecting a spirited discussion and we’re looking forward to making our case for adopting changes that will strengthen and improve our capital punishment law, restoring it as an extreme and vital tool in the administration of criminal justice.”

State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn stated: “This is a thoughtfully crafted, constitutionally sound bill. Once enacted, I believe this legislation will serve as a deterrent against our most heinous crimes. For those who do commit these vile acts, this statute will ensure that capital sentences are justly and fairly applied.”

Rep. Larry Mitchell said: “I spent half of my life as a police officer, investigating, pursuing and arresting some of the most heinous criminals in our state. Capital punishment is the most serious sentence we as a state can carry out. This legislation sets a higher standard, which reserves the punishment for only the most extreme cases.”

The bill will be filed early next week in the House of Representatives and is expected to be sent to the Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Gov. John Carney said in a statement on Monday he would be following the bill closely, but noted he agreed with the Supreme Court's finding. He previously said during an October debate that a re-instatement bill would probably face a veto but left the door open on Monday to a possible avenue for his approval.

"I wouldn't rule out, however, supporting a death penalty that applied only to those convicted of killing a member of law enforcement," he said. "In some cases – specifically behind prison walls – capital punishment may be our only deterrent to murder."

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