One of the most widely known death penalty lawyers who defended Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and nearly 80 other killers, including international terrorists and child murderers, will help fight off what is fast becoming a case for capital punishment against Charleston church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
David Bruck — whose defense of Susan Smith, an Upstate mother who drowned her children two decades ago, catapulted his career to fame — will lead a team of two public defenders on the 33 federal charges against the 21-year-old.
Nine of the murder charges levied against Roof in federal court and nine more in the state’s jurisdiction could expose him to the death penalty, if prosecutors decide to take that route. The white man from Eastover is alleged to have fatally shot nine people last month at Emanuel AME Church because they were black. Coming amid widespread discussion about race relations, the crime has captured worldwide infamy.
State and federal authorities have not said whose court will try Roof first, so the two cases will proceed parallel to each other for now. He will be arraigned on the federal indictments at 1:30 p.m. Monday in U.S. District Court on Broad Street.
To help Roof fend off any push for capital punishment in federal court, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said in an order Thursday that law required Roof to have a “learned” lawyer on death penalty issues.
A South Carolina law graduate and a former public defender here, Bruck is known for helping killers avoid the death penalty at sentencing. The Canadian-born jurist works with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, an organization founded by the U.S. government that lends expertise to federal public defenders at no cost. It culls some of the best legal defense minds from law firms and academic institutions nationwide.
Bruck has defended seven death penalty cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and more than 70 capital cases in lower courts.
“People who are vehemently opposed to the death penalty on principle want to devote their lives to it,” said Charlie Condon, who served as the state’s attorney general while Bruck defended Smith in 1995. “I think he’s in that category. He chose this path, so it makes him extremely qualified for this case.”
Monday’s arraignment, scheduled to unfold in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant, will amount to a formal airing of the federal charges, which included 12 hate crime counts and 12 violations of the victims’ civil right to freely practice their religion.
His prosecution will be the first of its kind under the 6-year-old Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
But the nine religious-obstruction charges accusing Roof of murder make him eligible for the death penalty. The indictment, in which a grand jury found that Roof acted with an especially egregious disregard for life, laid the foundation for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty.
Roof, meanwhile, also has been indicted on 13 charges in state court.
His defense teams, the prosecutors on his case and the presiding judges in both courthouses, separated only by two lanes of traffic in downtown Charleston, are an accumulation of some of the most experienced lawyers in the Palmetto State.
Bruck, director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, told The Post and Courier on Thursday that he was not able to discuss his role or his approach in Roof’s defense.
His counterpart in state court, Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, also declined to say how he might work with Bruck. Bill McGuire, chief capital attorney at the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense and a leading death penalty expert, will assist Pennington.
More than 20 years ago, Bruck helped dissuade a jury from voting for the death penalty against Smith.
After the Union County woman drowned her two young sons in a lake in 1994, she stepped in front of television cameras to plead for their return, blaming their disappearance on black men who stole her car with the children inside.
Prosecutors in Smith’s case, which garnered international attention, had prepared for months to seek execution after Smith confessed to the crime. But Bruck and his co-counsel, Judy Clarke, argued at trial that Smith had suffered years of abuse by her stepfather, leading to her insanity.
State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, who prosecuted Smith, saw how Bruck humanized the defendant to prevent the jury from imposing the death penalty. The jurors opted for life in prison for Smith. The laws then make her eligible for parole in another decade.
Pope said he expects Bruck to draw on the sentiments expressed by the church shooting victims’ families, many of whom forgave Roof when he appeared at a bond hearing last month.
“He will try to capitalize somehow on the grace that the families have shown,” Pope said. “I see him mirroring the families and getting the jury to show grace since the families had the sense to forgive (Roof).”
After the Smith case, Bruck and Clarke went on to national fame as defenders in capital cases, working together most recently on the Boston bombing trial. Bruck delivered the opening statement in Tsarnaev’s defense earlier this year, pleading for jurors to spare the young man whose dead brother was said to be the bombing plot’s mastermind.
“There is no evening the scales,” he said then. “There is no point in trying to hurt him as he hurt because it can’t be done.”
Tsarnaev, though, was convicted and later ordered to be executed.
Bruck’s career milestones also include representing one of the men in Pakistan who hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986 and killed 22 people on board. After his release from a Pakistan prison, terrorist Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini reached a plea deal with American authorities on charges here and was sentenced to life in prison.
In Roof’s case, Bruck will lead a team of two government lawyers: Assistant U.S. Public Defenders Ann Walsh of Charleston and Bill F. Nettles IV of Florence. Both Walsh and Nettles, a Citadel graduate not related to the U.S. attorney for South Carolina, could be replaced later.
Nettles started his career in the late 1980s as a state assistant solicitor under Condon, the top prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties at the time. He went into private practice before becoming a federal public defender in 1995, a position he has held since.
He made the defense’s first move Thursday for Roof, filing a request for government prosecutors to hand over copies of any written or recorded statements that his client made to investigators.
“There is legal talent on both sides,” Condon said. “Dylann Roof will have extremely talented advocates. I’m sure they will leave no stone unturned in his defense.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.