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Dylann Roof appeals death sentence in Charleston church slayings

Members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 before President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was the church’s senior pastor and a state senator. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dylann Roof asked an appeals court Tuesday to overturn his conviction and death sentence for the massacre he carried out at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

Roof was the first person sentenced to death for a federal hate crime for killing nine Black parishioners as they prayed during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At least two of the three judges on the panel expressed skepticism of Roof’s argument Tuesday that the trial judge ignored evidence of Roof’s delusions about white nationalists and was wrong to find him competent to stand trial.

Judge Kent A. Jordan repeatedly pressed Roof’s lawyer and noted that being mentally ill or being “a person who is full of hate” is not the same as being incompetent.

“Is every neo-Nazi incompetent to stand trial?” he asked. “It sounds like that’s what you are saying.”

Roof’s lawyer Sapna Mirchandani said his diagnosis was long-standing and affirmed by experts. She told the judge: “This is actually a medically defined term that multiple experts said applied to him. It wasn’t just a belief.”

Roof’s death sentence could pose a challenge for the Biden administration. President Biden is opposed to capital punishment, and as a candidate said he would seek to end federal executions.

But Biden has a strong personal connection to the South Carolina congregation and its pastor. In the days after the shooting, he visited the church with his family and attended the funeral of Emanuel’s senior pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

The Trump administration moved aggressively to resume federal executions last year for the first time since 2003. Officials carried out 13 executions, including during Donald Trump’s final days in office.

Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general, has signaled that he is open to a pause in the federal death penalty, but the new administration has not yet ordered a moratorium. The White House and the Justice Department did not respond to messages seeking comment.

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Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that in contrast to Trump’s “execution spree” in his final year in office that was unparalleled in modern history, the Biden administration has made a “major policy change” by “simply doing nothing.”

All of the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recused themselves from reviewing Roof’s case Tuesday, which is likely to be the start of a lengthy appeals process. The notice from the court did not state a reason, but it is presumably because the lead federal prosecutor in Roof’s trial, Julius N. Richardson, is now a judge on the court.

Instead, the case was heard by Jordan, of the 3rd Circuit, and Judges Duane Benton of the 8th Circuit and Ronald Lee Gilman of the 6th Circuit.

After his conviction for federal hate crimes in 2016, Roof sidelined his attorneys for the penalty phase of his trial. His lawyers told the court that Roof represented himself to block the presentation of evidence from mental health experts who diagnosed him with symptoms of a psychotic disorder, anxiety, depression and autism.

Roof, now 27, believed “his sentence didn’t matter because white nationalists would free him from prison after an impending race war,” according to court filings.

“Roof’s crime was tragic, but this Court can have no confidence in the jury’s verdict,” said Roof’s legal team, led by Mirchandani, Alexandra W. Yates and Margaret A. Farrand.

Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Will the government ever be able to execute him?

Prosecutors described Roof as a “calm, confident, callous man” who showed no signs that mental illness had anything to do with his crime, and they presented nearly two dozen victim impact witnesses. Roof knew the church would be holding a Bible study class that evening because he had previously visited in preparing for the attack, prosecutors said.

When Roof entered the church, Pinckney handed Roof a study sheet and a Bible and offered him a chair. Roof sat next to Pinckney for the next 45 minutes. When parishioners stood and closed their eyes in prayer, Roof took out his gun and started shooting. Nine of the 12 parishioners present died that evening.

The government’s lawyers credited U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel for determining that Roof did not suffer from a mental illness that made him unable to understand the proceedings. The court-appointed expert found that Roof’s unwillingness to cooperate with his own legal team was not the result of a mental disorder, but rooted in “a deep seated racial prejudice.”

Justice Department lawyer Ann O’Connell Adams told the court Tuesday that Roof understood the consequences of his actions and the likelihood that he would be sentenced to death.

The appeals court is also considering Roof’s request to send the case back to district court to redo the sentencing phase of his trial. Roof’s legal team said jurors were misled to believe that Roof could not be safely confined in prison for life — as opposed to facing execution — because he might incite other prisoners to violence.

All three judges pressed the government’s lawyers about whether the district court judge should have more clearly responded to a question from jurors about how to weigh the ability of prison officials to keep Roof in check.

Judges Benton and Gilman pointed to a past decision from the 4th Circuit that requires judges to directly clear up juror confusion about such instructions.

In response, Adams said the court could declare that type of error harmless and urged the court not to vacate Roof’s death sentence. She said there was “no chance” the jury would have returned a different verdict had it determined that the prison could control Roof’s behavior.

The crime, she said, involved months of planning and “unimaginable loss to the parishioners families.”