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March 2, 2016

Updating Delaware's struggles with the post-Hurst hydra

Download (1)As regular readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to be multi-headed, snake-like litigation developing in various courts as judges sort ought what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  And in this post about a month ago, I reported on the notable decision in Delaware to put all pending capital murder trials and executions on hold until the state Supreme Court resolved the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in the wake of Hurst.  

Now, thanks to this local article headlined "Public defenders: Death penalty unconstitutional," we can all read about the arguments from Delaware capital defense attorneys that the post-Hurst hydra must devour the state's existing capital sentencing scheme. Here are the basics from this press account:

Three assistant public defenders have argued to the Delaware Supreme Court that the death penalty law is unconstitutional -- and therefore needs to be fixed by lawmakers.  The attorneys from the Office of Defense Services filed a written argument Monday explaining why they believe Delaware's capital punishment policy violates the U.S. Constitution, especially in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed Florida's similar scheme unconstitutional.

"The Delaware statute contains a number of unconstitutional provisions that cannot be exercised by this court in an effort to salvage the statute," the 58-page argument said.  "Because these multiple constitutional problems require Delaware’s death penalty scheme to be substantially restructured, that task is for the legislature, not the courts."...

Attorneys from the Office of Defense Services said in their argument that it is "crystal-clear that the judge is the independent and paramount capital sentencer" in Delaware.  They went on to argue that Delaware is violating the Sixth Amendment by requiring a judge to make findings regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and their relative weight, before a death sentence can be imposed.

"As the opinion in Hurst makes clear, any fact-finding that is a necessary precursor to a death sentence, rather than one of imprisonment, must be performed by a jury," the argument said.  "The highest courts and legislatures of several states have likewise acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence requires the jury to determine the presence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, as well as the weight of each."

The attorneys went on to say that the practice of allowing juries to be non-unanimous is also unconstitutional.  "There is a nationwide consensus against non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases," the attorneys wrote.  "No existing state statute currently permits a non-unanimous determination of aggravating factors, and only two, in Alabama and Delaware, permit a jury’s sentencing determination to be less than unanimous.  That only two states permit non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases weighs heavily against its constitutionality."

The full brief referenced above can be accessed at this link.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2016 at 09:08 AM | Permalink

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