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Now that capital punishment is back, Dylann Roof's execution can move forward

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Dylann Roof's psychiatric exam was released (copy) (copy)

Dylann Roof enters a state courtroom. He was sentenced to death in a federal court in the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Three men sentenced to die for crimes they committed in South Carolina are among the 61 inmates on federal death row whose execution arrangements can now move forward.

After a nearly two-decade-long hiatus, the federal government on Thursday received marching orders from U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr to resume executions for prisoners sentenced to death. 

All of these men are being held at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., as they await decisions for direct appeals or, if already exhausted, their execution date.

Among them is Dylann Roof, a 25-year-old self-avowed white supremacist from Columbia who, in June 2015, gunned down nine black worshippers during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston.

Roof was the first federal inmate out of South Carolina in 15 years to be sentenced to death.

Among family members of the nine victims, opinions about Barr's announcement were varied. 

Melvin Graham, who lost his sister in the shooting, said that he knows that virtually nothing will change in the near future when it comes to Roof, who has years of appeals left at his disposal.

"For me, this changes nothing," Graham said. "It's in God's hands now." 

The Rev. Sharon Risher, who lost her mother and two cousins in the Emanuel shooting, is against the death penalty, a conclusion she arrived at as Roof's trial wound on and she delved into the details of capital punishment. 

"Dylann Roof should live the rest of his miserable life in jail," Risher said. "I had to really think about what that meant for me. I don't believe in the death penalty." 

Before Roof, Chadrick Evan Fulks and Brandon Basham were sentenced to die after they kidnapped and murdered Alice Donovan, a 44-year-old Horry County woman, in December 2002, though her remains were not found until 2009.

She was believed to be abducted from a Walmart parking lot. Additionally, both men pleaded guilty to the killing of 19-year-old Samantha Burns, a West Virginia college student who went missing in 2002. For Burns' slaying, the men received life sentences.

Fulks and Basham had escaped from a county jail in Western Kentucky shortly before Donovan was abducted and proceeded on a 17-day crime spree through Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The Department of Justice ceased executions in 2003, which was the last time an inmate was put to death. Since the shortage of one of the drugs used in the lethal injection cocktail, the government had been assessing its procedures.

Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt an addendum that would effectively end the moratorium and allow for the deaths of five inmates on death-row to be scheduled, the first of which is expected in December, the DOJ said. In place of the three-drug method, the addendum stipulated that a single drug, pentobarbital, be used instead.

Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, said Barr's announcement is problematic because it sidesteps a pending lawsuit to the federal death penalty protocol in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

What will happen in the coming months remains to be seen, and Friedman said she hopes the public will keep in mind that federal death penalty cases are impacted by the same shortcomings as state cases — racial bias, junk science, prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate legal representation for the accused, in some cases. 

The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, including South Carolina, but few conduct executions. The Palmetto State can’t currently carry out an execution unless the inmate agrees to die by electrocution. The state no longer has the three drugs needed to carry out lethal injections, and pharmaceutical companies no longer supply them.

There are 37 inmates on South Carolina's death row. The most recent to join their ranks was Timothy Jones Jr., who was convicted on state charges in June of killing his five children in 2014. 

Judge Eugene Griffith officially ordered Jones put to death on Nov. 30, as per the timing set in state law. But that won’t happen. Years, perhaps decades, worth of appeals are expected.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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