Roof, 22, an avowed white supremacist, has admitted to carrying out the massacre of nine black parishioners at the Mother Emanuel church just a mile from the courthouse where the first of his two trials unfolded. (He has also been charged with murder in state court, and faces another trial in that case this year.) After being found guilty on 33 counts in the hate crimes trial, he opted to defend himself during the penalty phase, during which prosecutors argued that he should be sentenced to death.
Now that the jury has recommended a death sentence, the judge will have to impose it, which will formally make Roof the 60th federal inmate facing death, according to the Bureau of Prisons. However, it is not clear when, or if, the federal government would be able to carry out this punishment.
Federal death sentences such as Roof’s are extremely rare, and executions are even less common. The 59 federal death row inmates account for a small fraction of the nearly 3,000 condemned inmates in states nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit.
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.
Still, the sentence announced on Tuesday in Charleston is itself relatively rare. 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, the project reported.
Before Roof, the most recent addition to the federal death row was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death on federal charges in 2015 for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing. Tsarnaev 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 in 2015 and Roof during his ongoing trial, 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 later this month.
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. Trump’s pick to head the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), echoes these views and has been a proponent of the death penalty during his time as a federal prosecutor, Alabama’s attorney general and a U.S. senator.
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.
Once Roof is formally condemned to die, there are no clear answers about 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.
When Tsarnaev was sentenced, federal officials told The Washington Post 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 before Roof’s trial 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 drug shortage has stretched on for years, and though states like Texas and Florida have regularly obtained lethal drugs, others have struggled to find them. As Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told me during the Tsarnaev trial: “There’s no reason to believe that the federal government has better access to these drugs than any of the states do. If the drugs aren’t available, the drugs aren’t available.”
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 punishment 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 this year.
Should Roof’s murder trial end also end with him convicted and sentenced, he would become the 39th person on South Carolina’s death row. The state last sent an inmate to the death chamber in 2011. And much like many other states, South Carolina does not have any lethal injection drugs, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, and it does not appear poised to obtain any in the near future.
Author’s note: I initially wrote in this story that Roof’s sentence was recommended by a grand jury, when I meant to just write jury, so I’ve fixed that.