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Charleston church shooter’s attorneys say racist delusion showed incapacity

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 7:42 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WCSC/WWBT/AP) - Attorneys for the man on federal death row for fatally shooting nine Black parishioners of a downtown Charleston church argue his “delusional belief” should have prevented him from representing himself at trial.

Attorneys for Dylann Roof are fighting to overturn the his conviction and death sentence in the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church.

No one was physically present inside the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Tuesday’s hearing. The arguments took place remotely over three hours.

Roof’s attorneys argued over a range of topics including his competency. Roof underwent two competency hearings. The first took place in 2016 before his trial began. The second took place to determine whether he could represent himself during sentencing after he moved to fire his attorney before the penalty phase.

His attorneys argued Tuesday the lower court should never have allowed Roof to represent himself citing his mental illness.

“[He] didn’t want to represent himself at his capital trial, and never should have been forced to,” appellate attorney Alexandra Yates said. “He waived counsel for one reason and one reason alone and that was to prevent his attorneys from presenting mental health evidence that he thought would ruin his reputation and undermine the reasons for committing his crime.”

Court documents state Roof stood trial while mentally ill under the “delusion he would be rescued from prison by white-nationalists.” But his attorneys said he believed that rescue would only happen if he kept quiet about his mental state. They argued while there were witnesses ready to testify to Roof’s mental state, Roof never called on them.

Such testimony, they say, could have stopped a federal jury from sentencing him to death.

The prosecution, meanwhile, argued Roof had the opportunity to present the evidence but did not do so.

“This is a problem that certainly could have been solved at the time with appropriate attention from Roof or from his standby counsel,” Department of Justice attorney Ann O’Connell Adams said. “I don’t think there’s any chance the jury would have returned a different verdict if they found the government could deal with Roof as he continued to misbehave in prison.”

Oral arguments began Tuesday at 10 a.m. and the court adjourned at 1:09 p.m.

Authorities said Roof opened fire during the closing prayer of a Bible study at the church on the night of June 17, 2015.

Roof was convicted in the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church.

In 2017, Roof became the first person in the United States to be sentenced to death for a federal hate crime.

How many appeals are ahead?

While this may be the first of Roof’s appeals, Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says it is unlikely to be his last.

“Virtually all federal death penalty cases go through all of the normal course of appeals,” Dunham said. “The normal federal death penalty case with the appeals process is going to take upwards of 15 years.”

It could last much longer.

Meredith McPhail is a criminal defense lawyer at the Law Offices of Adams & Bischoff in Charleston. She says most death row inmates will continue to make appeals until the sentence is carried out.

“What is happening now is that he is having his appellate arguments. If he loses at this this level he can ask for a rehearing. If he loses then, he can ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. If he loses again he can go back to the trial court and then the appeals court and then petition again for the Supreme Court to hear it,” McPhail said. “He is kind of at step number two of what can be six and even after that he can ask for clemency.”

However, the appeals process is not a one and done.

McPhail says there could be even more attempts to throw out the death penalty sentence and that’s because the death penalty is treated different than other punishments.

“Typically you only get one shot to raise an issue, but even after all of those steps, if there is a new change in the law or new evidence of misconduct by the prosecutor or an issue with a juror then you can raise it again with the Supreme Court,” McPhail said. “There is Supreme Court case law that says death is different.”

Even if Roof loses this appeal, Dunham says statistics are on his side.

“It is more likely than not, statistically, that the appeals process will result in a new trial or a new sentencing hearing,” Dunham said.

On top of an extensive appeal process, the cost of housing death row inmates and providing legal counsel can add up.

“The federal death penalty system costs millions of dollars more than a case where the death penalty is not sought,” Dunham said. “The main driver of the cost is the cost of defense council. The federal system requires that at least two lawyers be appointed to represent a capitally charged prisoner. One of those lawyers has to be what’s known as expert council – someone who has expertise in death penalty law.”

Roof is appealing his federal death penalty sentence. However, even if that were successfully appealed, he still faces nine consecutive sentences of life without parole for pleading guilty to murder charges in the State of South Carolina.

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