RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the conviction and sentence of a man on federal death row for the 2015 racist slayings of nine members of a Black South Carolina congregation.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond affirmed Dylann Roof's conviction and sentence in the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
In 2017, Roof became the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. Authorities have said Roof opened fire during the closing prayer of a Bible study at the church, raining down dozens of bullets on those assembled. He was 21 at the time.
In his appeal, Roof's attorneys argued that he was wrongly allowed to represent himself during sentencing, a critical phase of his trial. Roof successfully prevented jurors from hearing evidence about his mental health, "under the delusion," his attorneys argued, that "he would be rescued from prison by white-nationalists — but only, bizarrely, if he kept his mental-impairments out of the public record."
Roof's lawyers said his convictions and death sentence should be vacated or his case should be sent back to court for a "proper competency evaluation."
The 4th Circuit found that the trial judge did not commit an error when he found Roof was competent to stand trial and issued a scathing rebuke of Roof's crimes.
"Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible-study and worship. They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder," the panel wrote in is ruling.
"No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did. His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose," the judges wrote.
All of the judges in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers South Carolina, recused themselves from hearing Roof's appeal; one of their own, Judge Jay Richardson, prosecuted Roof's case as an assistant U.S. Attorney. The panel that heard arguments in May and issued the ruling on Wednesday was comprised of judges from several other appellate circuits.
Following his federal trial, Roof was given nine consecutive life sentences after pleading guilty in 2017 to state murder charges, leaving him to await execution in a federal prison and sparing his victims and their families the burden of a second trial.After the ruling, the South Carolina U.S. Attorney's office issued a statement from Assistant U.S. Attorney and Criminal Chief Nathan Williams, who served as one of the lead prosecutors on the case.
“The Mother Emmanuel AME Church massacre committed by the hate-filled murderer Dylan Roof is one of the worst events in not only South Carolina’s history but also our nation’s history,” he said. “Our office is grateful for the decision of the court, a decision that ensures, as the Court stated, that ‘the harshest penalty a just society can impose’ is indeed imposed. Moreover, our office is grateful that justice will be served for the victims, survivors and their families.”
The Court of Appeals decision read in part: “Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible-study and worship. They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder. He used the internet to plan his attack and, using his crimes as a catalyst, intended to foment racial division and strife across America. He wanted the widest possible publicity for his atrocities, and, to that end, he purposefully left one person alive in the church 'to tell the story.' When apprehended, he frankly confessed, with barely a hint of remorse."
The ruling added "No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did. His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose. We have reached that conclusion not as a product of emotion but through a thorough analytical process, which we have endeavored to detail here. In this, we have followed the example of the trial judge, who managed this difficult case with skill and compassion for all concerned, including Roof himself."
Kinnard reported from Houston.