Delaware Supreme Court weighs fate of 12 on death row
Even though the Delaware Supreme Court did not formally rule on Wednesday, a majority of the justices hinted they believe the 12 men on death row should be spared in light of the court finding the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional.
As the justices peppered a prosecutor with questions, Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. summed up their sentiment, asking how the state can proceed with death sentences secured under a flawed statute.
“Isn’t death different?” he asked. “I don’t understand how that is just.”
The justices are expected to issue a written ruling in the coming months.
Wednesday’s arguments in Dover stemmed from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that struck down Florida’s death penalty law, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution by giving judges, and not juries, the final say to impose a death sentence. Alabama and Delaware were the only other states that, like Florida, allowed judges to override a jury’s recommendation of life.
Following the ruling, the Delaware Supreme Court found Delaware’s capital punishment law was unconstitutional. This means the courts can no longer hand out death sentences unless the General Assembly garners enough support to change the current law to eliminate the judicial override.
The Delaware Supreme Court, however, was mum in its August decision about whether the 12 men already sentenced to death should still be executed.
Some of the men on death row include James E. Cooke Jr., a man convicted in the 2005 rape and murder of University of Delaware sophomore Lindsey Bonistall, and Craig Zebroski, a man convicted of killing a New Castle gas station attendant during a botched robbery attempt in 1996. Otis Phillips, the man convicted in the fatal shootings at a soccer tournament in Wilmington’s Eden Park, was previously on death row, but prosecutors said he is no longer eligible for the death penalty since his case is still being heard on direct appeal.
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General John Williams argued the convicted murderers sentenced to death should be executed because of a long-standing rule against retroactively applying new rulings on constitutional issues to closed cases.
“There needs to be an end to litigation and one way to do it is the state’s competing interest in finality,” Williams said.
The justices frequently shot questions at Williams during the hour-long arguments, questioning whether the court is truly bound by the retroactivity rule known from Teague v. Lane.
Patrick Collins, the attorney arguing on Powell’s behalf, said that Teague need not apply.
“You really have a balance of two competing considerations,” he said. “All the state has put on the one side is that Teague is utilitarian and helps to achieve finality. On the other side of the question is the things that really matter.”
“It has long been a principle of constitutional law that death is different, and it is not just a hollow phrase,” he said. “It means special procedural protections have to be in place to ensure that, if death is going to be imposed, that it is only imposed when those constitutional protections have been afforded.”
That’s my brother trying to keep murderers alive. I am so proud!