South Carolina To Seek Death Penalty For Charleston Shooter Dylann Roof
State prosecutors in South Carolina announced today that they will be seeking the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine people in a historic African-American Church in Charleston back in June:
State prosecutors indicated on Thursday in court documents that they will seek the death penalty for Dylann S. Roof, who is charged with the racially motivated murders of nine people in a church in Charleston, S.C.
After the June 17 massacre of black ministers and parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, it emerged that the suspect, Mr. Roof, 21, who is white, had expressed white supremacist views and hatred of black people.
Mr. Roof has been indicted twice for the killings, in state court and in federal court, and each of those cases carries a possible death sentence. Until the court filing on Thursday by Scarlett A. Wilson, the South Carolina state solicitor overseeing the case, neither set of prosecutors had said publicly whether they would seek to have him executed, but state officials, including Gov. Nikki R. Haley, have said emphatically that the case warranted the death penalty.
The documents said state prosecutors would pursue the death penalty because more than two people were killed, and that others’ lives were put at risk.
Prosecutors said they intended to present evidence on Mr. Roof’s mental state, adult and juvenile criminal record and other conduct, as well as his apparent lack of remorse for the killings.
A lone gunman walked into the historic church in downtown Charleston, and sat in a Bible study session for almost an hour before drawing a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and shooting people ranging in age from 26 to 87.
The slaughter drew international attention, prompting debate about race and guns — all the more so for taking place in a city that was the center of the American slave trade and the flash point of the Civil War, and in a church closely identified with the abolition and civil rights movements.
Published photographs of Mr. Roof, 21, posing with the Confederate battle flag also renewed debates about the use of that flag and other symbols of the Old South, and within days, both chambers of the South Carolina General Assembly voted to remove the banner from the State House grounds.
The Judge presiding over Roof’s criminal trial at the state level has already set a preliminary trial date for July 11, 2016, but it is likely that the state’s decision to seek the death penalty will result in delays that will push the trial date back considerably. In part, this will likely be due to the additional legal steps that kick in when a involves a request for the death penalty, such as the probably that the defense will seek to introduce evidence of Roof’s mental state either in defense of the underlying charges or as mitigation during sentencing. In that case, Roof will need to undergo observation by a battery of experts retained by both sides, and possibly by an independent expert appointed by the Court. Additionally, there will likely be motions made by the defense to try to change the venue of the trial to someplace other than Charleston, or at least to select a jury from outside the Charleston area. Such requests are typically at the discretion of the Judge, however, and given the fact that the publicity regarding the murders in Charleston was nationwide, the argument that a Charleston jury pool is somehow more potentially tainted than one from elsewhere in South Carolina likely won’t carry much weight. Similar arguments, of course, were made by the attorneys representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Judge presiding over that trial denied their request for a change of venue. I suspect we’d see the same thing in the case.
In addition to these state charges, of course, Roof has also been indicted on a thirty-three separate counts under Federal law, including hate crimes, many of which also carry the possibility of the death penalty. So far, Federal prosecutors have not stated whether they would seek the death penalty in their cases, but given the fact that they moved so quickly to indict Roof rather than waiting for his state charges to be resolved seems to indicate that they intend to move aggressively in their case as well. Also unclear is the order in which these cases will proceed. Ordinarily in cases like this, the Federal Courts defer to the state courts and that trial is the one that goes first, the only exceptions that we’ve seen are in those cases that clearly involve terrorism and similar charges such as the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the Murrah Federal Building bombing, and the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Roof’s crimes do not seem to be the result of some organized terrorist conspiracy, although I do think that the label “terrorist” can fairly be applied to him, so the most logical thing would be for the state case to take precedence. One possible factor that may change that, though, is the fact that there hasn’t been an execution in the Palmetto State since 2011. Additionally, there is an effective moratorium in place in the Palmetto State at the moment because, like many other states, South Carolina is unable to obtain the drugs necessary for lethal injection due to the fact that drug companies are increasingly unwilling to sell them. Given that, prosecutors on the Federal and State sides may agree to let the Federal case go first. Whichever case goes first, though, there seems to be little doubt that Roof will be convicted and that he will likely be sentenced to die.