The Delaware Supreme Court struck down the state’s death-penalty statute Tuesday, ruling that the latitude it granted to judges during the sentencing phase violated the Sixth Amendment.
Most high-profile death-penalty cases revolve around the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. But Rauf v. Delaware instead centers on the Sixth Amendment and the right to a jury it protects.
States with the death penalty generally require a jury to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances before sentencing a defendant to life imprisonment or death. At the start of 2016, three states—Alabama, Delaware, and Florida—allowed judges to impose a death sentence independent of the jury’s determination. In some cases, judges could override a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and impose death instead.
Those statutes came under renewed scrutiny in January after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death-penalty statute in Hurst v. Florida. Florida’s procedures only allowed jurors to render an “advisory sentence” during the sentencing phase; state judges could then independently weigh the factors and hand down life or death.
The Court struck down the scheme by an 8-1 vote. Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that like earlier sentencing procedures quashed by the Court, “Florida does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty.” By handing that power to the judge, the system ran afoul of the Sixth Amendment.