Delaware's Current Death Row Inmates Will Now Get Life Sentences, State High Court Rules

Death row inmates will get life without the possibility of parole instead, under a Thursday ruling from the court. The court did so by holding that an August decision that the state's death sentencing law is unconstitutional applies retroactively to those previously sentenced to death.

WASHINGTON — The Delaware Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that death sentences handed down previously in the state must be converted to life sentences without the possibility of parole.

In August, the state high court ruled in Rauf v. Delaware that the state's death sentencing law was unconstitutional in the wake of the US Supreme Court's January decision striking down Florida's death sentencing law.

Derrick Powell, one of fewer than 20 inmates on Delaware's death row, challenged his death sentence in light of that August ruling and the US Supreme Court case, Hurst v. Florida.

On Thursday, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that its August decision is "a new watershed procedural rule of criminal procedure" that must be applied retroactively — meaning it applies to death sentences handed down under the law now held to be unconstitutional.

As such, "Powell's death sentence must be vacated and he must be sentenced to" life in prison without the possibility of parole, the court held.

None of the court's five justices dissented from the unsigned Thursday opinion — a marked contrast from the closely divided 3-2 decision in the August case.

Read the decision in Powell v. Delaware: