Dylann Roof wants to avoid execution by pleading guilty to state murder charges in the attack on Emanuel AME Church, his attorneys said Wednesday in a hearing about a gag order in the case.
His preference to enter a plea in exchange for life behind bars echoed the intent his defense team expressed weeks ago in federal court, where prosecutors have not announced plans to pursue the death penalty for civil rights violations in the June 17 shooting.
Wednesday’s development came as attorneys for the victims’ families, church officials, news media and the federal government discussed whether a judge should continue to restrict the release of public records until the case wraps up with a trial or a plea.
Ninth Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson made no immediate decision on his gag order, which has been in effect for two months. He indicated plans, though, to allow for a transcript of 911 calls to be made public while deciding on a piece-by-piece basis whether other information should be protected from release through the order.
As the attorneys discussed what records might again traumatize survivors and reopen wounds for victims’ loved ones, Bill McGuire of the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense indicated that avoiding a trial for his client would serve as another way to ensure those people don’t suffer a setback in the healing process.
“I hope that never happens,” he said.
Two of the three survivors attended the proceeding at the county courthouse in downtown Charleston, where Roof is charged with nine murder counts and three attempted murder charges. He was not present. A lifetime of imprisonment without parole likely would prevent the years of hearings and appeals that would come if Roof were sentenced to death.
Despite the potential for a long court battle and mixed support from family members, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said Roof’s crimes deserve the ultimate punishment. He opened fire on a dozen worshippers during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church, killing nine and eventually sparing one. Two others survived because they feigned death.
Of the survivors, one managed to dial 911, and her call has been a focus of Nicholson’s gag order and restrictions on releases of public records. Most important to him, he said, are bloody crime scene photographs. The judge said he had reviewed much of the information in question.
“The sounds of people dying come through on that (911) tape,” Nicholson said Wednesday, “and it’s quite morbid.”
Nicholson and attorneys who claimed a stake in the judge’s order sought to balance the victims’ rights to privacy and dignity with the public’s interest in ensuring authorities’ response was appropriate. Eduardo Curry, an attorney for church officials and some family members, asked the judge not to lift any of his order “to allow for a healing process” to continue.
The Post and Courier has cited the S.C. Freedom of Information Act in asking for dispatch recordings, police dashboard video and supplemental incident reports, among other records. The newspaper made no request for the crime scene photos that Nicholson mentioned.
“I see no benefit ... for the news media to have access to those photos of people lying dead in a pool of blood on the church floor,” he said. “That’s my concern.”
Columbia attorney Jay Bender, who represents several news media organizations, including the newspaper, told the judge that his gag order had been too broad. It essentially cut off the flow of records, such as police reports and emergency radio communications, that are typically made public after violent crimes.
“When the system is working ... in the public eye, then the public is able to have confidence in its institutions,” Bender said. “When there is a heinous crime ... it’s doubly important to have that process open.
“There is a time when information that is of value to society is uncomfortable.”
Acknowledging his order’s breadth, Nicholson said he would adjust it to focus on the pieces of information that would be of little interest to most of the public, aside from obscure Internet publishers bent on sensationalism.
Lifting parts of the order that barred certain information from public view would clear the way for law enforcement agencies to release that information, but it would not require them to do so, the judge explained. The agencies must make that call according to the state’s open-records law, though their decisions also could be challenged in court.
Bender agreed with a suggestion by Charleston attorney Andy Savage, who represents the survivors, to make available a transcript of the 911 calls. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, who is prosecuting the federal case against Roof, told the judge that any information releases would be inappropriate. Though other attorneys for the victims’ families also spoke Wednesday, Williams said he was making the plea on the victims’ behalf.
“It may take years before people are ready to see this,” he said. “Just reading that transcript will retraumatize people.”
But the judge questioned whether Williams, as a representative of the federal government, had grounds to make certain arguments in state court. In discussing the gag order, the judge also revealed a piece of evidence that could be central to the prosecution in both courts: what he called Roof’s “taped confession by the FBI.”
Nicholson did not say when he would further clarify his order.
Roof’s defense attorneys also made no promises about when they would be ready to try the case. At the end of the one-hour hearing, both McGuire and Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington refused to agree definitively on Nicholson’s July trial date.
“I’m going to do my very best,” Pennington said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at (843) 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.