Delaware's highest court declared the state's death penalty law unconstitutional Tuesday, ruling that it violates the Constitution's guarantee of a fair trial.
The ruling was the direct result of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in January, which invalidated a similar law in Florida. The justices said then that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose the death penalty.
Delaware's supreme court said its state law violated that principle because it allowed a judge, independent of the jury, to find the existence of factors in favor of the death penalty.
"Because Delaware's capital sentencing scheme allows the judge to do this, it is unconstitutional," the court said.
It also said the law was invalid because a jury in a capital case was not required to find the existence of factors in favor of the death penalty by unanimous vote and beyond a reasonable doubt.
"We are unable to discern a method by which to parse the statute so as to preserve it," the court said, adding that it would be up to the state legislature to decide whether to change the law and bring the punishment back.
The state has the option of appealing Tuesday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, though that would seem a futile exercise, given that the decision was based on the similar case from Florida.
The appeal in Delaware was brought by lawyers for Benjamin Rauf, a Temple University law school graduate who was convicted of killing a classmate last year in what police said was a drug deal gone bad.
Santino Ceccotti, a lawyer with the Delaware public defender's office who argued the Rauf case, said he was pleased with the ruling but noted the state attorney general's office could appeal the decision in federal court.
A spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Justice that the agency is reviewing the decision.
Ceccotti said it remains to be seen whether the ruling could be applied retroactively to the 13 men currently on Delaware's death row.
"What we know for sure is that the scheme in Delaware is unconstitutional ... and that will have a direct impact on cases that are pending," he said.
Ceccotti said all defendants in cases in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty will have to be charged with a different offense.
"With this decision, capital murder is no longer an option," he said.