On Aug. 2, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in Rauf v. Delaware that Benjamin Rauf—a former Temple University law student currently awaiting trial for the August 2015, murder of a fellow classmate—established that the state’s current death penalty scheme was unconstitutional in light of the early January U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision in Hurst v. Florida. By a vote of 3–2, the Delaware Supreme Court determined that, under Hurst, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that a jury, and not a judge, find the critical facts necessary for a death sentence to be imposed under Delaware law.
The issue at the heart of yesterday’s Rauf v. Delaware decision really began last January with the Hurst case. That case involved Florida’s death penalty scheme—a scheme that asked jurors to weigh the aggravating circumstances that it found that supported a death sentence against those mitigating circumstances that it found that supported a life imprisonment sentence. Under the scheme, a Florida jury could only recommend that a defendant be sentenced to death if it found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances. In other words, the jury could only recommend a death sentence if it found that the defendant was truly deserving of death. The problem with Florida’s use of advisory jury verdicts, however, was just that—the jury’s verdict (for life imprisonment or death) was merely advisory. Florida judges could—and sometimes did—ignore a jury’s recommendation for a life imprisonment sentence when sentencing a defendant to death. In Hurst, SCOTUS strongly rebuked this practice, clearly announcing 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.”
Fast-forward to the instant case. Before trial, Rauf’s attorneys argued that Delaware’s death-penalty scheme was unconstitutional. Like the Florida scheme struck down by SCOTUS in Hurst, the Delaware scheme also required a jury to only make an advisory verdict recommending that a defendant be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.
Rauf’s attorneys then further argued that because the jury’s finding that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances was a “fact necessary to impose a sentence of death” under Delaware law, that its finding needed to be made unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt in order to meet Sixth Amendment standards as set forth in Hurst and other cases.
Fast-forward more still to Aug. 2, when the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rauf—and therefore declared the state’s death penalty scheme unconstitutional as currently written. In so doing the Court reasoned that, in light of SCOTUS’s decision in Hurst, “the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution require[s] a jury, not a sentencing judge, to find that the aggravating circumstances found to exist outweigh the mitigating circumstances found to exist” “unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt to comport with federal constitutional standards[.]”