A federal judge on Thursday delayed Dylann Roof’s trial in the deadly attack on Emanuel AME Church because prosecutors still have not decided whether to seek execution.
Roof could face the death penalty on nine of his 33 charges in federal court, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said the decision by Washington-based Justice Department officials could take another two months.
Such delays in high-profile federal cases are typical. After the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, it took then-Attorney General Eric Holder more than nine months to announce he would seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Nearly eight months have passed since Roof’s arrest.
Attorneys for the 21-year-old Eastover resident already have said he would plead guilty if the government opts against capital punishment.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel urged prosecutors during a hearing Thursday in downtown Charleston to inform him promptly of any development so a trial date can be set.
“There are obviously important and alternate paths to go here based on that decision,” the judge said.
Roof’s federal charges in the June 17 shooting of nine black parishioners at the Calhoun Street church include civil rights violations. Officials have called the shooting a hate crime.
Because of the delays in the federal case, Roof is likely to be tried first in state court in July. State prosecutors already have said they would pursue the death penalty.
Thursday’s hearing in federal court served as a chance for Roof’s defense team and prosecutors to update Gergel on the status of the case. Roof, who remains at Charleston County’s jail, was not there.
Attorneys did not address the prosecution of Roof’s friend, 21-year-old Joey Meek of Lexington County, whose trial was delayed earlier this month as his lawyers continue to pore over evidence. Meek faces up to eight years in prison on two felony counts of not alerting police when Roof talked about his scheme and of later lying to FBI agents about how much he knew.
Evidence in the cases continues to flow at a steady clip.
Roof’s defense team, led by attorney David Bruck, last month got a hard drive full of data, and the FBI has since authored more reports, Richardson said.
While Richardson said the government would be ready for a trial soon, Bruck said his ability to defend his client depends on the death penalty decision. A trial could be avoided, he said, if Roof pleads guilty and gets life in prison.
Roof already had waived his right to a speedy trial because his lawyers need time to review “vast amounts” of evidence to defend him in a death penalty trial, Bruck said.
“He has offered to plead guilty,” said Bruck, who also represented Tsarnaev in the Boston trial. “Everybody knows that. That has been the position since the first day of this case. The only issue is the government’s decision to accept that plea.”
Federal prosecutors have said that they planned to send their case to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s office in December. The Justice Department’s Review Committee on Capital Cases typically makes a recommendation to Lynch within 90 days.
Though two representatives of the department’s Civil Rights Division, which typically leads such prosecutions, attended Thursday’s hearing, Richardson answered the judge’s questions. The prosecutor said that many people must give input and express opinions before a decision is made.
“We feel like we are much closer,” he said.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.