The federal government's decision about whether authorities should seek the death penalty against the man accused of killing 9 African-Americans in Charleston is still likely months away, South Carolina U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said in a recent interview with Free Times.
The federal case against alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Storm Roof got off to a surprising start last month when Roof's lawyer, David Bruck, indicated to a federal judge in Charleston that Roof wished to plead guilty to the 33 federal hate crime charges levied against him. Prosecutors allege that Roof outlined his hate-filled worldview in a racist online manifesto and that he told others he hoped to incite a "race war" with his actions.
However, Bruck told the judge that he couldn't advise his client on whether to enter that plea until he knows whether Roof could face a death sentence. A temporary "not guilty" plea was entered on Roof's behalf.
The 21-year-old also faces murder charges from state prosecutors. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett A. Wilson has not yet said whether her office plans to pursue the death penalty in the case.
Nettles says once his office decides on its recommendation, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch would weigh it before coming to a final decision. The South Carolina prosecutor, an Obama appointee who has held the post since 2010, called the process and decision "extraordinarily complex," noting that generally "enormous deference is given to victims."
In this case, many family members have garnered worldwide admiration for their forgiveness of Roof.
"I have never witnessed such a pronounced expression of hope or grace," Nettles says. "A lot of the victims have already expressed forgiveness that is unfathomable."
Along with interviews with family members of victims, Nettles, a former public defender who has worked on capital cases from the other side of the courtroom, says the federal government's protocol puts in place "layers of review to balance competing interests."
A Department of Justice spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Bruck, Roof's attorney, also could not be reached.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that seeks to provide unbiased information and analysis of the death penalty, says federal prosecutors will weigh several factors in making a decision. (Bruck, Roof's lawyer, is on the board of the center.)
The wishes of victims' families, the cost of a capital trial and whether local prosecutors can seek the death penalty themselves are big factors, he says.
Roof's potential capital charges differ from the ones against Boston terrorist Dzokhar Tsarnaev, Dunham says. State authorities in Massachusetts cannot pursue the death penalty because capital punishment has been ruled unconstitutional there.
Dunham also says that Roof's indication that he would prefer to plead guilty would save both the federal government and the shooting victims' families a prolonged trial and hefty costs.
"He's expressed willingness to plead guilty, and if the death penalty were off the table that would give the family members of the homicide victims an opportunity to give their statements without cross-examination or interruption during sentencing proceeding," Dunham says. "They could say what they had to say without being subjected to re-traumatization through a trial."
The federal government also has tools the state does not - the ability to put a permanent muzzle on Roof. As they have done with Tsarnaev, "special administrative measures" could be imposed on Roof, meaning his contact with the outside world would be severely limited, Dunham says. In essence, Roof could be barred from publicly expressing racist views.
"The federal prosecution has the ability to essentially make Dylann Roof disappear from view," Dunham says. "His ability to become a symbol for white supremacists disappears."
A trial on Roof's state murder charges has been set for July 2016. No further hearings have yet been scheduled by federal prosecutors in the case.
Source: free-times.com, August 27, 2015
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