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Federal trial for accused Charleston church gunman delayed again as death penalty decision looms

A memorial in front of the Emanuel AME Church after the shooting. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Authorities on Tuesday again delayed the trial of the man accused of killing nine African Americans at a Charleston, S.C., church last year as the Justice Department continues to weigh whether to seek a death sentence in the case.

District Judge Richard M. Gergel told federal prosecutors to make a decision soon so he could set a trial date, arguing that the relatives of those slain “have a right to put this behind them,” according to Reuters.

But Gergel agreed to a request from federal prosecutors to delay the trial of Dylann Roof, the accused gunman, to allow Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to make a decision about whether to seek a death sentence. The trial was also postponed earlier this year due to this unanswered question, as Roof’s attorneys said they could not be ready for the trial until the death penalty decision was made.

Remembering the Charleston church shooting victims

Roof is facing federal and state charges for the June 2015 massacre, and the death penalty decision has already been made in the state case. South Carolina prosecutors will pursue a death sentence for Roof in that trial, currently scheduled to begin in July.

Last summer, Roof was indicted on federal hate crime charges, some of which can carry the death penalty. Attorneys for Roof have said that he plans to plead guilty to those but say they cannot recommend that he enter such a plea until they know if he could face a death sentence.

The uncertainty lingers more than nine months after the shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder in the state’s case.

Similar decisions by federal prosecutors in high-profile cases have taken long spans of time before.

The man convicted and sentenced to death last year for carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing with his brother was charged in April and June of 2013 with counts that could carry a possible death sentence; then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that prosecutors would seek a death sentence the following year.

The Justice Department declined to comment Tuesday.

Federal death sentences are rarely handed down and even more rarely carried out. Three inmates have been put to death since the federal death penalty statute was reinstated in 1988 and expanded in 1994. And the federal government effectively has a moratorium on executions while it reviews the federal death penalty policy.


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