Federal Prosecutors To Seek Death Penalty Against Dylann Roof For Charleston Shootings
Following in the footsteps of state prosecutors, Federal prosecutors have announced they will seek the death penalty for Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof.
Federal prosecutors announced yesterday that they would seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof, the shooter who killed nine people in an historical African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina last year:
Dylann S. Roof, who is accused of killing nine people during a racially motivated assault last June at a Charleston, S.C., church, will face two death penalty trials after the Justice Department said Tuesday that it would seek his execution.
“Following the department’s rigorous review process to thoroughly consider all relevant factual and legal issues, I have determined that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement about the case against Mr. Roof, who was arrested less than a day after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic and predominantly black congregation.
“The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm,” Ms. Lynch continued, “compelled this decision.”
In a separate seven-page filing in Federal District Court in Charleston, prosecutors cited nine aggravating factors, including that Mr. Roof had “expressed hatred and contempt towards African-Americans, as well as other groups, and his animosity towards African-Americans played a role in the murders charged in the indictment.”
The prosecutors also wrote that Mr. Roof had “demonstrated a lack of remorse” and that he had “targeted men and women participating in a Bible study group at the church in order to magnify the societal impact” of the attack.
Two defense lawyers, David I. Bruck and Michael O’Connell, declined to comment on Tuesday.
Last year, a federal grand jury returned a 33-count indictment against Mr. Roof, who was accused of hate crimes, weapons charges and obstructing the practice of religion.
He is also facing murder charges in a state court, and the local prosecutor, Scarlett A. Wilson, said last September that she would seek the death penalty.
Federal prosecutors will seek the death sentence for Dylann Roof, the man accused of killingnine parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church last year.
“Following the department’s rigorous review process to thoroughly consider all relevant factual and legal issues, I have determined that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement Tuesday. “The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision.”
Roof now faces a possible death sentence in two cases set to unfold in South Carolina, as state authorities have also said they will seek the death penalty for him.
In a court document on Tuesday, federal prosecutors outlined a series of factors they said justified a federal death sentence for the June 2015 attacks inside the Emanuel AME Church, describing the shooting as a carefully planned, racially motivated massacre.
They argued in the seven-page filing that Roof, who is white, “demonstrated a lack of remorse,” had specifically targeted the church’s Bible study group to “magnify the societal impact” of the rampage and that “his animosity towards African Americans played a role in the murders.”
In addition, prosecutors highlighted that three of the victims were between the ages of 70 and 87. The federal death penalty statute says that if a victim is particularly young or old, that can be one of the aggravating factors to warrant the death sentence.
The decision announced Tuesday comes less than a month before the first anniversary of the attack, which unfolded inside the historic Charleston church that birthed a slave rebellion and helped incubate the civil rights movement in that city.
Steve Schmutz, a lawyer representing family members of three of the victims, said federal officials held a conference call on Tuesday to inform relatives of the decision. Schmutz said he believed these relatives supported Lynch’s decision.
“Regardless of whether or not you’re for the death penalty, the thought process is this: where else would you have it, if not for here?” Schmutz said.
David Bruck, an attorney for Roof, had said he would plead guilty to the federal hate crime charges, but also said he could not advise him until federal authorities decided on the death penalty. The judge then entered a “not guilty” plea for Roof at a hearing last summer, essentially a temporary plea until the death penalty decision could be made.
Bruck did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.
It was unclear how the death penalty decision announced Tuesday could impact Roof’s plea. A plea can ultimately be used as a way to avoid a death penalty in capital cases.
In perhaps the most famous example, Theodore J. Kaczynski — known as the Unabomber — eventually struck a deal and pleaded guilty the day opening arguments were going to begin in his trial, reversing his longstanding position of pleading not guilty. As a result, he agreed to a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole and evading the death penalty
Given the nature of the charges against Roof and the facts supporting his motive in this case, it’s not at all surprising that the U.S. Attorney would seek the death penalty in this case. Indeed, given the fact that South Carolina prosecutors had already announced that they would be seeking the death penalty it would have been rather unusual for Federal prosecutors to take a different position on the issue. Additionally, as with previous cases, the fact that Roof faces the risk of a death sentence regardless of which venue he is tried in at this point could increase the odds that he would be willing to plead guilty to all the charges against him and accept a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, something that he would be eligible for under both South Carolina and Federal Law in the event that he is not sentenced to death in either venue. Alternatively, of course, Roof could decide not to plead guilty in either venue at this point and proceed to trial, In that situation, there would seem to be little doubt about his guilt on the underlying charges. The only question at that point would be whether the state and Federal juries would sentence him to death. Even if they do, though, it’s not clear how soon Roof would be executed. South Carolina has not executed anyone since 2011 and there are reports that, like many states, South Carolina has been unable to obtain access to the drugs used in an execution for some time now. Similarly, the Federal Government presently has a self-imposed moratorium on executions in place at the moment due to an on going review of the Federal death penalty statute and of the manner in which the Bureau of Prisons carries out executions. It’s unclear how long this review will last.
The next step in both of these cases would be for the matters to proceed toward trial absent a resolution via plea agreements. As things stand right now, there is a trial date set for January 2017 in the state criminal case, but that date could change depending on the resolution of pretrial matters and whether or not either the prosecution or defense determines that they need more time to prepare. In this case, of course, there are few doubts about the guilt phase of the trial but the defense is likely to invest much effort in trying to save their client from the death penalty, including lining up expert witnesses regarding mental health and other issues that could be potential mitigating factors at sentencing. There is no trial date set yet in the Federal case, but this is not unusual given the fact that it is generally the case that Federal prosecutors typically defer to state prosecutors in criminal matters of this type. There will be plenty of time to proceed with the Federal charges against Roof after his state case is resolved, whether that happen via a verdict or a plea arrangement. Until then, with both jurisdictions seeking a death sentence, Roof’s options appear to have run out.