Sentencing

Delaware Attorney General Will Not Appeal Decision Striking Down Death Penalty Statute

Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn (pictured) announced on August 15 that his office will not appeal the Delaware Supreme Court's August 2 decision in Benjamin Rauf v. State of Delaware, which struck down the state's death penalty statute. In Rauf, the court found that Delaware's capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, by granting judges, rather than juries, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. Delaware's statute had not required a unanimous jury determination of all aggravating circumstances that were considered in sentencing a defendant to death or a unanimous jury finding that those reasons for death outweighed mitigating circumstances. The Rauf decision intensifies the national spotlight on Alabama and Florida as the only states that still permit judges to impose death sentences after non-unanimous jury recommendations for death and on Alabama as the only remaining state to permit a judge to override a jury's life verdict. The statement of the attorney general's office said Denn "has concluded that even if the United States Supreme Court reversed the opinion on Federal Constitutional grounds, ... the Delaware Supreme Court would ultimately invalidate Delaware’s current death penalty statute based on the Constitution of the State of Delaware." Litigating those issues, he said, "would likely take years" and "would likely not only bring about the same result, but would also deny the families of victims sentencing finality." The statement indicated that state prosecutors would challenge the application of Rauf to the thirteen prisoners currently on Delaware's death row, leaving their status uncertain. For future cases, legislative action is now the only route to reinstating the death penalty in Delaware. Such action seems unlikely, given that it must be approved by both houses of the legislature and by the Governor. However, death penalty abolition bills passed the state Senate in 2013 and 2015, and narrowly failed in the House earlier this year, and Governor Jack Markell has expressed support for abolishing the death penalty and "applaud[ed] the Supreme Court's finding that the state's death penalty law is unconstitutional."

Delaware Supreme Court Declares State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

The Delaware Supreme Court on August 2 declared the state's capital sentencing procedures unconstitutional, leaving Delaware without a valid death penalty statute. In the case of Benjamin Rauf v. State of Delaware, the court held that Delaware's death sentencing procedures violate the constitutional principles recently set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. Hurst stated that a capital defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury requires "a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Four members of the Delaware high court ruled that the state's capital sentencing statute unconstitutionally empowers judges, rather than jurors, to decide whether the prosecution has proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that are considered in determining whether to impose for the death penalty. They wrote that the jury must unanimously find those facts to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a death sentence may be considered. In an opinion by Chief Justice Leo Strine, Jr., a narrower 3-justice majority of the court also ruled that the facts necessary to impose a death penalty in Delaware included a finding that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances (reasons to spare the defendant's life). Delaware's statute violates the Sixth Amendment, they wrote, because it does not require as a prerequisite to the death penalty that jurors unanimously agree that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation beyond a reasonable doubt. The court said the unconstitutional sentencing provisions were inseverable from the rest of the death penalty statute, and that any changes to the statute would have to be made by the legislature. However, recent legislative activity suggests that a bill restoring the state's ability to impose death sentences may have difficulty passing. Calling the death penalty "an instrument of imperfect justice," Governor Jack Markell has indicated that he would sign a bill to abolish capital punishment if it passed the legislature. Such a bill passed the state Senate in 2013 and 2015 and was released by the House Judiciary Committee for consideration by the full House, where it narrowly failed earlier this year. Professor Eric Freedman, a death penalty expert at the Hofstra University School of Law, said "[t]his probably means, as a practical matter, the end of the death penalty in Delaware."

Georgia Approaches Record Number of Executions But Hasn't Imposed Death Sentences in Two Years

The pace of executions in Georgia is outstripping the pace of death sentences. While the number of executions this year (5) is equal to the single-year record set in 1987 and 2015, no one has been sentenced to death in more than two years, and prosecutors are rarely seeking death sentences. The last death sentence in Georgia came down in March 2014. The number of notices of intent to seek the death penalty has fallen by more than 60% in the last decade, from 34 in 2006 to 13 in 2015. This year, the death penalty is being sought in only one case - the murder of a priest who had protested against capital punishment and signed a document stating his opposition to the death penalty, even in the event he was violently killed. Brian Kammer, head of the Georgia Resource Center, which represents death row inmates in their appeals, said improving the quality of representation has been crucial in bringing about change: “Had such legal teams with adequate resources been available to these recently executed prisoners at the time they were tried originally, I am confident they would be alive today.” Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said the option of life without parole has had a significant impact. Chuck Spahos, head of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said, “It has made an enormous difference. When you start talking about the expense, the years of appeals and the length of the process that goes on and on and having to put victims’ families through that with no closure, the availability of life without parole with a guilty plea has become an attractive option.” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Akil Secret raised questions of fairness, asking, "If a life-without-parole sentence is sufficient for today’s worst crimes, why isn’t it sufficient for those crimes from the past where death was imposed?" 

Delaware Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Statute

The Delaware Supreme Court heard oral argument on June 15 in Rauf v. State, a case challenging the constitutionality of the state's death sentencing statute on the grounds that it violates the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. The challenge arose in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2016 in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida's sentencing scheme, saying that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough." Delaware, Florida, and Alabama are the only states that permit a judge to make the final sentencing decision in capital cases after receiving a non-unanimous sentencing recommendation from a jury. At the time of Hurst, Florida death penalty jurors were asked to consider and weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances without reporting which factors they found, and then make a recommendation of sentence. However, the trial judge ultimately determined whether aggravating factors existed that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty and decidede whether to impose a life sentence or the death penalty. After Hurst, the state amended its statute to require the jury to unanimously find aggravating circumstances and vote at least 10-2 for death before the judge could impose a death sentence. The Delaware Supreme Court must decide whether Delaware's system, which requires a jury to unanimously determine whether an aggravating factor exists, but allows a judge to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors, meets constitutional requirements. Santino Ceccotti, a public defender who argued on behalf of Benjamin Rauf, a defendant whose capital case is pending, said the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors is a fact finding, and therefore should be done by a jury. "The Sixth Amendment requires not a judge, but a jury, to find each fact," he said. Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg, who argued for the state, conceded that Delaware's weighing process was a fact finding necessary before a death sentence could be imposed, but said the jury fact finding required by Hurst was limited to determining whether the defendant was eligible for the death penalty, not what the ultimate sentence should be. A Florida trial court ruled last week that Florida's new statute violated Hurst because the determination that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation is a fact finding that must be made by the jury. An Alabama trial court has also ruled that its judicial sentencing statute violates Hurst. All capital trials in Delaware are on hold while the court considers the case.

Second Florida Trial Court Strikes Down State's Death Penalty Statute

A second Florida trial court has ruled that the state's new death penalty statute is unconstitutional. On June 9, Hillsborough County Judge Samantha Ward barred prosecutors from seeking death against Michael Edward Keetley, saying that the state's death penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Judge Ward said that the Florida legislature's changes to the sentencing law after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the old statute unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, created an additional set of constitutional problems. Hurst held that the Florida sentencing statute impermissibly permitted the judge, rather than the jury, to determine whether the prosecution had proven each fact necessary to impose the death penalty. In response to Hurst, the legislature passed a new law that permitted the court to impose a death sentence only if the jury unanimously found at least one aggravating circumstance that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty and then recommended a death sentence by a vote of at least 10-2 after determining that the aggravating circumstance were sufficiently serious to justify a death sentence and outweighed any mitigating circumstances. Judge Ward said that, under the new sentencing scheme, the jury's weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances constituted a fact-finding necessary before a death sentence could be imposed. She wrote, "it defies logic, and the dictates of [the Sixth Amendment], to have the jury find one of the prerequisites unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt (that at least one aggravating factor exists), but not the other two prerequisites (that sufficient aggravators exist and that they outweigh the mitigating circumstances). Hurst specifically stated '[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.'" Judge Ward is the second Florida judge to find the new statute unconstitutional: one month earlier, on May 9, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch also struck down the law, ruling that the portion of the statute permitting the court to impose the death penalty without a unanimous jury vote for death violates the state constitution. 

Death Penalty Support Continues Its Steady Decline in Nation's Leading Execution County

Just 27% of Houston-area residents prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder, according to a new report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Harris County, the largest county in the Houston metropolitan area, "earned its reputation as the 'death penalty capital of America,'” the report says, "having executed more people since 1976 ... than any other county in the nation." At its peak, Harris County sentenced 44 people to death during a three-year period (1994-1996). However, declining public support for capital punishment has contributed to a drop in the number of death sentences the county imposes. Over the last three years, five people were sentenced to death in Harris County, with no new death sentences imposed in 2015. Texas is experiencing a similar statewide trend: while the state imposed a high of 48 death sentences in 1999, it imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. The percentage of Houston residents who consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder has "dropped steadily," the report says, including a decline of 12 percentage points since 2008. It attributes the erosion of support for the death penalty to "recent revelations of discriminatory sentencing, innocent persons being freed from Death Row just before their scheduled executions, and botched lethal injections," along with the comparatively greater costs of seeking the death penalty, rather than life imprisonment, which the report says "have risen dramatically." (Click image to enlarge.)

Florida Court to Hear Argument on Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Declaring Death Penalty Process Unconstitutional

On May 5, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Timothy Hurst, whose death sentence was overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Hurst v. FloridaThe state court must determine whether the high court's ruling, which struck down Florida's sentencing scheme, entitles Hurst to a new sentencing hearing, reduces his sentence to life without parole, or requires some other outcome. The case may also decide how the Hurst ruling will affect the nearly 400 people on Florida's death row. Hurst's attorneys say he should have his death sentence reduced because, "persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony are entitled to have their now-unconstitutional death sentences replaced by sentences of life without parole." That position received support in an amicus brief filed by three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court, a former state representative, a former prosecutor, and past presidents of the American Bar Association. The justice and legal experts argue that  Hurst "held Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional," and that in such circumstances Florida law requires all death sentences imposed under the statute to be reduced to life without parole. The state attorney general's office has argued that state law requires blanket imposition of new sentences only if the death penalty itself is declared unconstitutional, and that Hurst only declared Florida's method of imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. Florida has the nation's second-largest death row, with 396 people as of January 1, 2016, before the state legislature rewrote the sentencing procedure to require a unanimous jury finding of at least one aggravating circumstance, and at least a 10-2 vote to impose a death sentence.

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury. 

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