State prosecutors will seek Dylann Roof’s execution, a decision announced Thursday that likely will stretch out his court case and the emotional toll it could take on his alleged victims for years to come.
In Roof’s first local court appearance, loved ones of the nine worshippers he’s accused of killing during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church and some who survived the attack extended mercy and forgiveness to the 21-year-old. Some have told prosecutors about their wish to spare his life while others said the death penalty would be appropriate.
Ultimately, whether Roof faces the death penalty on nine murder charges was 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s choice. Wilson said Thursday that forgiveness will be part of the healing process but that it did not forgo the consequences for Roof.
“This was the ultimate crime,” she said at a news conference, “and justice from our state calls for the ultimate punishment.”
Roof’s chief defense attorney in state court, Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, said he could not comment on the development.
While some disagreed with Wilson’s position, representatives of the victims’ families and the three survivors said they were comfortable with it. In the weeks leading to her announcement Thursday, Wilson met with the loved ones and discussed her stance. She had indicated on the day the families forgave Roof that she would reflect on their thoughts and decide later whether to pursue the death penalty.
Andy Savage, a Charleston attorney who represents the three survivors of the June 17 attack and relatives of two who died, said many of the family members did not support the idea of capital punishment. But they were not upset by Wilson’s efforts to seek it.
“The families’ position is consistent with the way they lead their life and the same life experiences that had them there at the Bible study,” Savage said. “Religion guides their life, so it’s not surprising that they’re not death penalty advocates. ... But it’s not their decision to make.”
In the state court case that Wilson is prosecuting, Roof is charged with nine counts of murder, three of attempted murder and a firearms charge.
The Eastover man also was indicted on 33 charges, including hate crimes and religious freedom violations, in federal court, where prosecutors could seek the death penalty as well. The indictment laid the groundwork for such a move, but federal prosecutors have not indicated their plans.
Before the shooting, Roof posted an online manifesto that outlined his beliefs of white supremacy. He had the bravery, he wrote, to take his thoughts to the “real world.”
Investigators said he walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street with a fanny pack strapped around his waist. Inside were a .45-caliber Glock pistol and eight magazines filled with hollow-point bullets.
He sat for an hour, the police said, listening to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and 11 others discuss Bible verses. He later stood and opened fire, the investigators said.
He spared the life of one woman, Polly Sheppard. Felicia Sanders and her 11-year-old granddaughter survived by pretending they were dead. Sanders’ son, Tywanza, was slain.
Roof was caught the next day in North Carolina. Since his initial bond hearing, when the families spoke of forgiveness, Roof has appeared once at two downtown courthouses.
With the state and federal cases continuing toward trial, prosecutors have not said which one might take priority. But one of them eventually will win out, said Chris Adams, a Charleston attorney who has tried death penalty cases nationwide. With state prosecutors seeking the death penalty, he said, federal officials might decide not to in their case.
“At this point, no one has indicated they would be willing to take a back seat,” he said. “But it appears the state case is pushing forward faster.”
But even with one death penalty case, many more court proceedings will follow.
Roof indicated his desire to plead guilty to his federal charges, but his attorneys and a judge would not let him until prosecutors decide whether to pursue his execution in that court.
Savage, the lawyer who represents Sheppard and Sanders, said he was concerned that the lengthy case would allow further opportunities for Roof’s beliefs to spread and his image to be emblazoned on news publications worldwide.
“One thing (the families) were hoping for was a quick resolution that would get this guy off the front page of the newspapers,” he said. “The sooner that guy can be put away and never be heard from again, the better off they’ll be.”
Thursday’s decision by Wilson, a Republican appointed to her post in 2007 and elected the next year, did not come as a surprise.
Attorneys for the church have said that they would leave the decision in Wilson’s hands without making recommendations. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a death penalty opponent, said shortly after the shooting that if there ever were a case for capital punishment, Roof’s would be it.
Charleston attorney Steve Schmutz, who represents relatives of slain churchgoers Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd and Myra Thompson, expressed the same after Wilson’s announcement Thursday.
“The public differs on whether we should have the death penalty, but the fact of the matter is we do have it,” he said. “The families, in their hearts, have forgiven him, but they trust in the legal system to take its course and do what’s appropriate in this case.”
Pinckney’s relatives also said through their attorney, Gerald Malloy of Darlington, that they were confident prosecutors “will find justice” while they focus on furthering his legacy.
Wilson said each family member showed respect or deference to her decision.
“While none of us has the heart for vengeance,” she said Thursday, “we all have the resolve to seek and find justice.”
By law, she was required to notify defense attorneys of her intent only 30 days before trial. The proceeding is set to begin July 11, a little more than a year after the shooting.
After Roof’s attorneys said the case would require extensive time to prepare for trial, a judge cleared their obligations in other cases until after Roof’s is resolved. Resolution, though, is likely years away.
The attorneys indicated their client, who is able to write and talk effectively, would be mentally competent to stand trial. But they have not discussed Roof’s emotional or mental state at the time of the shooting — defined by law as a “mitigating” circumstance that would serve as a defense against the death penalty.
Preparing such a defense can take 10 times the work of other murder cases, Adams said. Lawyers are expected to “litigate everything under the sun,” including current laws and ones that might go into effect during the prosecution and appeals process, Adams said.
“It’s a monumental undertaking,” he said.
If Roof is found guilty, the jury would consider whether to ask the judge to sentence him to death.
To make that recommendation, the jury must find an aggravated circumstance in the crime. Of the 12 categories of circumstances laid out in state law, two apply to the shooting, according to a court document Wilson filed Thursday: The offender used a weapon to create a great risk of death to multiple people, and at least two people were murdered in a single scheme.
Like the verdict, the jury’s decision on an aggravating circumstance and the death recommendation must be unanimous. The judge then would be bound to impose the sentence unless he found that the evidence didn’t support it.
The S.C. Supreme Court would then review a transcript of the trial and decide whether to affirm the sentence or set it aside and send the case back to the lower court. The defense attorneys also could find grounds to appeal the ruling in federal court.
But with fewer people getting death sentences nationwide and still fewer of those getting executed, Adams said he expects the death penalty to eventually be abolished.
“If he’s sentenced to death, he may never get executed,” Adams said. “It’s likely to go on (in courts) for 15 to 20 years, and the death penalty might be over by then. ... The whole time, the victims will have to live with the uncertainty of the whole process.”
If the death penalty is imposed, Savage said, the 11-year-old girl who survived the attack might be in her 30s by the time it’s carried out.
The Rev. Norvel Goff, the church’s interim pastor, also acknowledged that it would be a long process. But carrying it out with accountability and respect to the families will be the only position the church takes on it, he said.
“The eyes of America, if not the world, are on South Carolina,” he said. “They know what happened — the tragedy, the massacre, the terrorist act some of us call it — but now they want to see how people of faith and others respond.”
Melissa Boughton contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.