All seek justice in Roof case, feds say

Visitors gather outside Emanuel AME Church during funeral services for two of the victims in the June 2015 mass shooting there.

Despite courtroom conflicts between the state and federal authorities seeking Dylann Roof’s execution, South Carolina’s top federal prosecutor said this week that they all want the same thing: justice.

Acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake penned a letter to survivors and loved ones of those slain in last year’s mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church. It was her first public comment on the case since taking over for Bill Nettles, who resigned last month.

Drake and the U.S. Department of Justice have been at apparent odds with 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who lambasted the federal government and court system for seeking to try Roof first. The federal death penalty trial is set for Nov. 7, while the state’s capital proceeding is slated to start Jan. 17.

Drake, an assistant U.S. attorney for two decades, had declined requests for comment on the conflicts emerging between her office and Wilson’s. But in her letter, which was posted Wednesday on the Justice Department’s website, she called Wilson a “terrific, capable, smart and excellent trial lawyer” who has worked on many prosecutions with federal counterparts.

“My point is this — our relationships with our fellow prosecutors and advocates at the state level are deep and personal,” Drake wrote. “While it may appear in court pleadings that the state and federal court are both working towards a speedy trial, at the end of the day, we are all after the same thing — justice.”

Wilson last week asked a judge to set the state trial sooner and reiterated her criticisms of how the Justice Department has handled the case. She argued that a weeks-long federal trial stretching through the holidays would create a burden on the victims.

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson and opposing attorneys are expected to discuss Wilson’s proposal during a hearing at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Charleston County Judicial Center.

Wilson said Thursday that she congratulated Drake on sending the letter. But the legal issues that have emerged between the state and federal cases cause her “great concern,” and it would be “irresponsible” to ignore them, she added. In the end, though, she agreed with Drake that they both would work to “find justice for this community.”

“When the trial work needs to get done, both the federal and state prosecution teams will do whatever it takes to see that the other is prepared so that the work is done well,” she said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Drake’s comments also came after the victims and their representatives expressed frustration with the conflicts.

Andy Savage, an attorney for several of the victims and survivors, has voiced support for Wilson’s stance. He said the federal authorities had not consulted with his clients about the possible November date before a federal judge agreed to it. None of the families, he added, want to endure two trials in the different jurisdictions.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of consideration of the needs of the victims. It seems ... it could have been coordinated a lot better,” Savage said. “The (families’) investment of time and preparation has been mostly with the state authorities. But I don’t think they have chosen sides. They want (Roof) to be held responsible for his actions by either source.”

In seeking an earlier trial, Wilson has cited the state’s “primary custody” of Roof and a track record indicating federal authorities are less likely than South Carolina to execute someone.

Defense lawyers, including Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, have argued that the prosecutor’s “rush” to try Roof first is “reckless” and risks violating their client’s due-process rights. Nicholson’s scheduling of the hearing on the issue came Thursday, a day after Pennington formally responded to Wilson.

Roof, 22, a white man from Eastover, acted on racial hatred when he fatally shot nine black parishioners in June 2015 at the Calhoun Street church, authorities have said.

His attorneys continue to float his offer to plead guilty in exchange for a lifetime prison sentence, but both state and federal governments have pushed hard to see that he stands trial and faces execution.

In her letter to the families, Drake said that navigating the state and federal court systems would be only part of their journey in coping with the shooting’s impact.

“While the court system is only a narrow path in the challenging road ahead, it is of course important to ensuring that the person who did these awful deeds is held accountable,” she wrote. “I am sure you know that the American people are on the side of justice, and are vested in a process at the state and federal level that is full and fair. Justice will be done.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.