Frequently Asked Questions About Delaware’s Death Penalty

On this page we’ve tried to answer questions most often posed about the death penalty. If you have a specific question we might help you with, please contact us.

What is the history of Delaware’s death penalty law and its use?

The first execution (a hanging) in Delaware is reported to have taken place in 1662. Official record keeping of executions began in 1902. Capital punishment was abolished by Delaware in 1958, only to return in 1961. Then Governor Elbert Carvel vetoed the bill reinstating the death penalty; however the General Assembly overrode the veto. Delaware’s capital punishment law was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. In 1977 Delaware enacted death penalty legislation which rendered our capital punishment scheme constitutional. In 1986 Delaware changed its method of execution from hanging to lethal injection, although those already sentenced to die by hanging were required to request execution by lethal injection. Billy Bailey refused to make a choice and so was executed by hanging on January 25, 1996. In 1991 Delaware changed its law from requiring a unanimous jury vote to impose death to a judicial override system whereby the jury’s vote is considered a recommendation and the judge decides the sentence. Since 1992 Delaware has executed 16 inmates, the most recent being Shannon Johnson in April of 2012. On August 2, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that Delaware’s death penalty was unconstitutional, violating the sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Where and when do executions take place in Delaware?

All executions in Delaware were carried out at the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. Since 1994 all executions were carried out between the hours of 12:01 a.m. and 3:00 a.m.

How did people charged with murder in Delaware qualify for the death penalty?

To qualify as a capital case in Delaware a homicide must include one of 22 statutory aggravating circumstances. These circumstances usually relate to the vulnerability of the victim (by virtue of age, disability or pregnancy, for instance), the status of the victim (a judicial or law enforcement officer, or state witness, for instance) or the nature of the homicide (committed in furtherance of some other criminal activity or was premeditated, for instance). The jury must unanimously agree that one of these circumstances exists before the sentencing judge can weigh all aggravating and mitigating circumstances and determine what punishment is appropriate.

If a person convicted of first-degree murder in Delaware is not sentenced to death, what punishment do they receive?

The only alternative to death for those convicted of first degree murder in Delaware is life without parole. Life without parole in Delaware means just what it sounds like – the inmate spends the rest of their natural life behind bars.

What is the race of those individuals sentenced to death in Delaware since reinstatement of capital punishment in 1977?

Forty-three individuals have been sentenced to death in Delaware since 1977. Of those 43, 19 (44%) were white, 20 (47%) were black, and 4 (9%) were Latino or Native American. This pattern is similar to what is happening in other states with the death penalty. Nationally, there are more than 3,300 death sentenced inmates: 45% are white, 42% are black, 11% are Hispanic and 2% fall into a general “other” catagory.

What is the race of the victims of those sentenced to death in Delaware since 1977?

Seventy percent of the death sentences were imposed in white victim cases, although the majority of murder victims in Delaware are black. The death sentencing rate in black defendant and white victim cases in Delaware is 17.8%, which is significantly higher than other jurisdictions studied, including Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. The highest death sentencing rate in black defendant – white victim cases in those states was 10.1%.