On Wednesday morning, jurors filed into a Charleston, S.C., courtroom to hear opening statements in the trial of Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old charged with federal hate crimes after the massacre last year at a historic church just a mile from the courthouse. Prosecutors outlined the shooting in brutal detail, saying Roof fired dozens of rounds, shooting the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, “over and over again.”
More than a year after the shooting, Roof is in court for the first of two trials. (He has also been charged with murder in state court, and faces trial on that next year.) Authorities say Roof confessed to the killings of nine black parishioners at the Mother Emanuel church. His guilt in the trial is effectively unchallenged. An attorney for Roof did not argue with the facts detailed by the federal government Wednesday, and they have offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.
Prosecutors have not accepted that offer. Instead, they are still seeking a rare federal death sentence in the case, a decision that has caused unease among some families of the victims. And if Roof is convicted and sentenced to die, it is not clear whether the government would be able to carry out the punishment.
Federal death sentences are extremely rare, and executions are even less common. There are 62 inmates on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit, compared to nearly 3,000 condemned inmates in states nationwide.
Since the federal death penalty statute was reinstated in 1988 and expanded in 1994, the government has put three inmates to death, all by lethal injection.
The last federal execution was more than a decade ago. Louis Jones Jr., a Gulf War veteran, convicted of the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of Tracie Joy McBride, a 19-year-old Army recruit, was put to death in 2003. Two years before that, the government executed Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing and Juan Raul Garza for murdering three men.
The government has taken a little more than 200 federal death penalty cases to trial since 1988, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. (Attorneys general had agreed to let prosecutors seek death sentences in more cases, but many of those ended with plea deals or the government opting not to pursue the death penalty, the project’s records show.) In the federal cases that actually saw juries decide on a sentence, they opted for life imprisonment about twice as often as death sentences.
Most recently, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death on federal charges last year for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing. Tsarnaev, the newest addition to the federal death row, is being held at the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo., according to the Bureau of Prisons. If he is put to death, he will be brought to the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., where federal death sentences are carried out.
The Justice Department sought death for Tsarnaev last year and Roof this year, but it has also announced what is effectively a federal death penalty moratorium while officials review their policy; it does not look like this review will finish before President-elect Donald Trump takes office. President Obama has called the death penalty “deeply troubling,” but has remained in favor of using it for particularly heinous crimes, while Trump has been a vocal supporter of the death penalty.
Nationwide, polls have shown that American support for the death penalty has declined since peaking in the 1990s, and a survey earlier this year showed that less than half of Americans supported the death penalty for the first time in decades. (A different poll, not long after, found stronger support for capital punishment.)
Republicans still strongly back the death penalty, while a majority of Democrats oppose it. White people are much more likely than black or Hispanic people to support the practice, which studies show has been disproportionately sought for black inmates. In South Carolina, a poll showed a similar racial split, with most black people saying Roof should get life in prison and most white people saying he should be sentenced to death.
But if Roof is condemned to die, it remains unclear when such a penalty could be carried out. The appeals process could stretch on for years, and whether he is actually executed could depend on the status of the death penalty nationwide at that time.
Death sentences and executions alike have plummeted nationwide in recent years, while states seeking to execute inmates have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs amid an ongoing shortage. Some states do have alternative methods on the books, but lethal injection remains the primary method of execution nationwide. (In a minor coincidence, opening statements on Wednesday occurred on the 34th anniversary of the country’s first lethal injection, which was carried out by officials in Texas.)
Federal officials said last year that the government did not have any lethal injection drugs, which are increasingly difficult for officials to obtain, due to the shortage sparked, in part, by European objections to capital punishment interrupting the supply of drugs. When asked last month if the Bureau of Prisons had any drugs or planned to try to obtain any, a spokesman said the agency was “currently in the process of revising its execution protocol.”
The current federal lethal injection protocol involves three drugs — an anesthetic, paralytic and a drug to stop the heart — a combination commonly used in executions across the country until the drug shortage began. As a result, states have turned to a number of other drugs and combinations, some of which were used in executions that went awry. Some states have sought to hide the identity of drug suppliers, while others have turned to older, largely abandoned methods of execution, like the electric chair or a firing squad.
Questions about Roof’s sentence will not end with this case. Roof also faces a potential death sentence in his state trial, on charges of murder and attempted murder, set to begin next year.
If he is convicted and sentenced on the state charges, Roof would become the 39th person on South Carolina’s death row, which last sent an inmate to the death chamber in 2011. South Carolina does not have any lethal injection drugs, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said Wednesday, and it does not appear likely it will obtain any in the near future.
Kevin Sullivan in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.