Excessive Sentencing Project - Delaware

Policies and rulings on lengthy imprisonment terms in Delware.

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  • Delaware abolished parole in 1990.  
  • Delaware has mandatory LWOP. Also allows for JLWOP.
    • Under 11 Del. C. § 4209(a), “any person who is convicted of first-degree murder shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for the remainder of the person's natural life without benefit of probation or parole or any other reduction, said penalty to be determined in accordance with this section.”
  • Delaware has no minimum age for children to be transferred to adult court or for a JLWOP sentence.

State Constitution

Article 1, §11. Excessive bail or fines; cruel punishments; health of prisoners.

Section 11. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel punishments inflicted; and in the construction of jails a proper regard shall be had to the health of prisoners.

NOTE: While sometimes interpreted as the equivalent of the federal Eighth Amendment, the case law indicates that Section 11 may offer less protection than the Eighth Amendment.

Sentencing Statutes

  • Sentencing Guidelines System – SENTAC

    • In 1983, Delaware created the Delaware Sentencing Accountability Commission (SENTAC), a voluntary and non-binding sentencing guidelines system. Generally, a sentencing worksheet must be completed for each offense, and departures must be noted. However, the defendant has no right to appeal a sentencing departure.

  • Proportionality Review for Death Sentences - 11 Del. C. § 4209(g)

    • Under 11 Del. C. § 4209(g), this Court must independently review a sentence of death to determine whether: (1) the evidence supports, beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury's finding of at least one statutory aggravating circumstance; (2) the sentence was arbitrarily or capriciously imposed or recommended; and (3) the sentence is disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases.” Sykes v. State, 953 A.2d 261, 273 (Del. 2008). In addressing proportionality, the court reviews the “universe” of cases. Id. at 274.

  • Habitual Criminal Statute - 11 Del. C. § 4214

    • “11 Del. C. § 4214 subjects repeat felons to enhanced punishment. The extent of that enhanced punishment depends on the number and gravity of the habitual offender's prior crimes as well as the gravity of the crime for which the offender is being sentenced. The General Assembly designated certain crimes as "violent" felonies for purposes of enhanced sentencing. The listed felonies do not always involve violence, but they are dangerous crimes that place innocent people at risk of harm. Escape after conviction, even in its most benign form, properly falls into that category.” Forehand v. State, 997 A.2d 673, 676 (Del. 2010).

    • Consideration of Mitigating Factors

      • The Supreme Court “has expressly refused to extend the individualized capital sentencing doctrine to an ‘individualized mandatory life in prison without parole sentencing doctrine.’ The courts in Delaware have followed this reasoning and have held that there simply is no consideration of mitigating factors once the State establishes that the defendant qualifies for habitual offender status under 11 Del. C. § 4214(b) and, therefore, the court has no sentencing discretion.” State v. McLaughlin, 1997 Del. Super. LEXIS 442 (Del. Super. Ct. Aug. 8, 1997) (emphasis added).

    • Proportionality under the Habitual Criminal Statute

      • Delaware “utilizes a two-step analysis to determine whether a habitual offender's sentence is grossly disproportionate to the crime being punished. First, we compare the sentence imposed to the crime committed. Only if that comparison leads to an inference of gross disproportionality will the Court proceed to the second step -- i.e., a comparison of the defendant's sentence with those in similar cases.” Hall v. State, 937 A.2d 139 (Del. 2007) (citing Crosby v. State, 824 A.2d 894, 908 (Del. 2003)); Forehand v. State, 997 A.2d 673, 676 (Del. 2010).

Case Law

State Constitution & Proportionality 

In Delaware, “proportionality review is restricted to those rare cases in which a threshold comparison of the crime and the sentence leads to an inference of gross disproportionality.” Bednash v. State, 2012 Del. LEXIS 324 (Del. June 19, 2012). 

Proportionality under Article I, Section 11 “does not preclude a properly instructed jury from imposing the death penalty in the face of a claim of irresistible impulse.” Sanders v. State, 585 A.2d 117 (Del. 1990). 

Article I, Section 11 of the Delaware Constitution relates only to the mode of punishment and not the length of a sentence authorized by the Legislature. De Shields v. State, 534 A.2d 630, 647 (Del. 1987) (citing State v. Ayers, 260 A.2d 162, 169 (Del. 1969)) (emphasis added). Article I, Section 11 has always “accorded substantial deference to the judgment of the General Assembly.” Sanders v. State, 585 A.2d 117, 144 (Del. 1990) (citing Ayers, 260 A.2d at 169; State v. Cannon, 55 Del. 587 (Del. 1963)). See State v. Kelson, 1990 Del. Super. LEXIS 109, 9-11 (Del. Super. Ct. Mar. 20, 1990).

The Delaware Supreme Court has also stated that Article I, Section 11 is and should continue to be guided by the “same general principles that have guided the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.” Sanders v. State, 585 A.2d 117 (Del. 1990) (citing DeShields v. State, 534 A.2d 630, 638-40 (Del. 1987); State v. Dickerson, 298 A.2d 761 (Del. 1972)).

The following cases mention both the Federal and Delaware Amendments, and suggest that they should be interpreted similarly:

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  • State v. Wonnum, 2006 Del. Super. LEXIS 399 (Del. Super. Ct. Sept. 22, 2006) (overturned on other grounds) –
  • State v. Jones, 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 301 (Del. Super. Ct. Aug. 31, 2004) –  
Proper Article 1, Section 11 Claims 

Delaware courts have refused to hear conclusory Article 1, Section 11 claims where filings have failed to address substantial matters such as “as textual language of the statute in question, legislative history, and structural differences among statutes.” State v. Torres, 2008 Del. Super. LEXIS 455, 1-2 (Del. Super. Ct. Sept. 2, 2008). Merely mentioning “other areas where the General Assembly has established an age at which a person is considered to be an adult” is conclusory. Id.   

  • Sykes v. State, 953 A.2d 261, 267 (Del. 2008)(Court declined to address Delaware constitutional or eighth amendment claims because they were improperly raised)
  • Wallace v. State, 956 A.2d 630 (Del. 2008) (Defendant failed to properly raise a claim under the Delaware Constitution).

In Wallace v. State, the court described what constitutes a “proper presentation” of a violation of the Delaware Constitution. It “should include a discussion and analysis of one or more of the following non-exclusive criteria: ‘textual language, legislative history, preexisting state law, structural differences, matters of particular state interest or local concern, state traditions, and public attitudes.’ Simply reciting that his sentence of life without parole violates Article I, section 11, without more, is a conclusory statement. Wallace v. State, 956 A.2d 630, 637-638 (Del. 2008). 

Leading Court Discussions of Graham and Miller  

Twyman v. State, 26 A.3d 215 (Del. July 25, 2011) (Attempted murder is within the category which LWOP may be imposed under Graham; Graham does not apply to non-homicide cases.)  

Severe Sentences 

Wallace v. State, 956 A.2d 630 (Del. 2008) – 15 year old juvenile sentenced to life without parole for murder of a child. Resentencing might be required under Miller.

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State v. Rivera, 1997 Del. Super. LEXIS 350 (Del. Super. Ct. July 31, 1997) – As a habitual offender, defendant was sentenced to four life sentences without the possibility of parole for burglary.