Without statewide jury, feds fear an ‘eleventh-hour’ move to derail Roof trial

Prosecutors cited publicity over the removal of the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds in a bid to have the federal court use a statewide jury pool for Dylann Roof’s trial.

Federal prosecutors fear an “eleventh-hour” maneuver by defense lawyers could derail Dylann Roof’s trial unless a jury is picked from all parts of South Carolina, court documents stated.

Roof’s attorneys have said in past filings that they have no “present” intention to ask for the trial to be moved outside Charleston. But to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson, the lawyers’ refusal to rule that out altogether indicates that they could seek a different venue if the court struggles to find impartial jurors among local residents.

In a filing Saturday, Richardson said that using a statewide group of prospective jurors would help stave off that dilemma.

“After requesting (a local jury pool), Roof’s counsel may change tack and raise issues concerning a Charleston-area jury in a challenge to venue,” Richardson wrote. “Indeed, the possibility of just such an approach appears to be what leads Roof to refuse to affirmatively waive a subsequent challenge.”

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel did not immediately rule on the jury issue. A hearing is set for 2 p.m. July 18, but the judge could issue a written order before then.

Roof is charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes and religious rights violations, in the June 17, 2015, shooting that killed nine black worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. A jury would decide whether Roof should be executed if he’s found guilty of crimes that make him eligible for the punishment.

His attorneys had agreed to draw 1,200 to 1,500 jurors from a nine-county region centered on Charleston, indicating that a lengthy trial would be less taxing on participants living in the area.

While the lawyers said they didn’t intend to ask for the trial to move outside the region, such requests are common in death penalty cases. A defense team that included Roof’s lead attorney, David Bruck, sought a change of venue for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but that trial stayed in that city’s federal court, and the defendant was sentenced to death.

Richardson noted in the recent filing in Roof’s case that Bruck has already hinted at concerns with a local jury pool. Bruck has said publicly that 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s comments during her bid to try Roof first in state court could taint prospective jurors. Roof also faces the death penalty in the state murder case.

Roof’s crimes and their impact also could make a Charleston-area jury problematic, Richardson added. The prosecutor mentioned the public movement that led to the Confederate battle flag’s removal from Statehouse grounds and the local news media’s extensive coverage of the case.

Because of that publicity and a greater likelihood that people have ties to someone substantially affected by the attack, a local jury pool could have a higher portion of residents who “could not set aside their own experiences to be ... fair and impartial,” Richardson wrote.

A statewide group, he argued, would have “more varied publicity exposure.”

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