Court Battles

Appeals court upholds death sentence in Charleston church shooting

A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld Dylann Storm Roof’s conviction and death sentence in the 2015 murders of nine Black church-goers in Charleston, S.C.

A three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously denied Roof’s legal team’s effort to overturn the conviction and sentence on several grounds, including the lower court’s determination that he was competent to stand trial.

“No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did,” the panel wrote in a 149-page, unsigned decision. “His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose. We have reached that conclusion not as a product of emotion but through a thorough analytical process, which we have endeavored to detail here.”

An attorney representing Roof did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

A federal jury in 2016 convicted Roof of 33 counts in the massacre, including federal hate crime charges, and recommended he receive the death penalty. He had espoused white supremacist views in online writings before the killings and told investigators after his capture that he was aiming to start a race war.

Roof’s attorneys appealed, arguing that the trial and sentencing were plagued with errors and that the trial judge was wrong to allow the then 22-year-old represent himself at times during the proceedings.

“Though Roof’s mental state was the subject of two competency hearings, and five experts found him delusional—findings swiftly dismissed by the court, in its rush to move the case along—jurors never heard any of that evidence,” his lawyers told the appeals court last year. “Instead, prosecutors told them Roof was a calculated killer with no signs of mental illness. Given no reason to do otherwise, jurors sentenced Roof to death. Roof’s crime was tragic, but this Court can have no confidence in the jury’s verdict.”

But the three-judge panel categorically rejected the defense team’s objections, finding no errors that tainted the outcome in the trial judge’s handling of the case and expressing horror at Roof’s attack on the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible-study and worship,” the judges wrote. “They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder. He used the internet to plan his attack and, using his crimes as a catalyst, intended to foment racial division and strife across America.”

In addition to the federal death sentence, Roof is serving nine consecutive life sentences on state murder charges over the killings.

The massacre and court proceedings drew national attention and helped prompt the ongoing debates over the flying of the Confederate flag, which was included in several photos of Roof that later surfaced.

A month after the murders, then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) ordered the flag to be taken down from the state capitol.

Then-President Obama spoke at the memorial service for the victims, including the church’s pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney (D), leading the crowd in singing “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy.

Updated at 1:07 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama Charleston church shooting Dylann Roof Dylann Storm Roof Mass shootings Nikki Haley white nationalism White supremacy
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