Dylann Roof challenges death sentence upheld by appeals court

Dylann Roof is asking a full federal appeals court to review a three-judge panel's decision upholding his death sentence in the 2015 slayings of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

Roof's legal team on Wednesday petitioned the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear his case challenging the federal death sentence after a panel of appellate judges last month categorically dismissed his arguments that his trial and sentencing were flawed.

His lawyers asked the full 4th Circuit to review the panel's decision in part because they say the death sentence was improperly imposed due to the prosecutors' efforts to paint the victims in a sympathetic light, which the Supreme Court has ruled can only be admitted in capital cases in limited circumstances. 

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"The Panel’s decision conflicts with this precedent, opening the door to death sentences based on victims’ goodness and worth," Roof's lawyers wrote in a court filing. "Especially troubling, it sanctions reliance on victims’ religiosity as evidence of that heightened worth."

The three-judge panel late last month had upheld Roof's death sentence, rejecting all of his numerous legal challenges to the trial and sentencing, including a district judge's finding that he was mentally competent to stand trial for the killings.  

"No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did," the panel wrote in a unanimous 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."

If the 4th Circuit grants Roof's petition, the case will be reheard before the entire court, the last resort for an appeal before the Supreme Court.