Roof’s lawyers seeking more preparation time

Dylann Roof (center) appears with lawyers Bill McGuire (left) and 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington at a court hearing last year in Charleston.

Dylann Roof’s attorneys have asked a judge to delay his trial in state court so they can better prepare his defense against the death penalty.

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson last year scheduled the proceeding for July 11, even as defense lawyers hinted at an unlikelihood that they would be ready in time.

Roof faces execution if convicted of the June 17 killings of nine parishioners and the attempted murders of three others at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

If the trial happens as scheduled, its eventual result could be jeopardized by an appeals court’s review, his defense team said in a filing late last week. The attorneys did not suggest a new date but asked for “additional time for adequate preparation.”

A hearing on the issue is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday. An attempt Monday to reach 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who is prosecuting the state case, was not successful.

Considering the expansive defense investigation required ahead of such trials, it’s not a surprise that Roof’s lawyers made the move, said Chris Adams, a Charleston attorney who has handled several capital cases. Death penalty findings have been overturned because lawyers missed only one document, he noted.

“You can’t choose shortcuts,” Adams said. “You have to do everything.”

Wilson has briefed surviving victims and family members of the situation, attorney Andy Savage, who represents several of them, said Monday. They will not second-guess any decision by the judge to approve a delay, he said.

“Every victim I represent is focused on the importance of an error-free trial,” Savage said. “They want the earliest possible trial date that will not insert an unnecessary appellate issue.”

The 22-year-old’s separate case in federal court, where he faces 33 charges, has been postponed repeatedly over the past few months as prosecutors decide whether to pursue the death penalty.

The state case, though, has continued with the July date still on the calendar.

But the Eastover resident’s lawyers, 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington and Bill McGuire of the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense, said in the court filing Thursday that picking a jury this spring or summer, “while substantial investigation and preparation remains to be done in a case that is neither factually simple or straightforward, would deny the defendant the basic tools of an adequate defense.”

They offered few specifics, though the paperwork indicated that they provided the judge with further details.

Appeals courts have ruled that failing to fully investigate a defendant’s mental capacity has amounted to ineffective lawyering in the death penalty phase of some trials, the attorneys noted. They said it would be “fundamentally unfair” for a judge to deny their motion for a continuance.

“Under the circumstances here,” they said, citing past rulings, “to force the defendant to begin defending his life before his case has been adequately investigated is an insistence of expeditiousness that would render (his) right to defense with counsel an empty formality.”

They simply do not have time to gather all this “mitigation” evidence to fight the death penalty before the July trial, they said.

Roof is willing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, his attorneys have said in past hearings. There seems to be little dispute that he was the young white man who sat in a church room for an hour of Bible study before standing and emptying his .45-caliber Glock several times at the other people there. Three people survived without any physical wounds.

Officials have said it was a hate crime by a white supremacist who posted a rambling manifesto before the attack. If jurors were to convict Roof at the Charleston County Judicial Center, they would listen to testimony about him during penalty phase and recommend whether he should get the death penalty.