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Appeals court affirms Dylann Roof’s death sentence in Charleston church slayings

Members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 before President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed during the mass shooting at the church along with eight others.
Members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 before President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed during the mass shooting at the church along with eight others. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A federal appeals court Wednesday upheld Dylann Roof’s conviction and death sentence for the massacre he carried out in 2015 at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C.

A three-judge panel unanimously affirmed a trial judge’s finding that Roof was competent to stand trial and rejected the argument that the judge had ignored testimony about Roof’s mental illness.

“No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did,” the judges wrote in an unsigned opinion. “His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose.”

Roof’s defense team is expected to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The federal government is not scheduling any executions until the Justice Department completes a review of death penalty policies put in place during the tenure of President Donald Trump, whose administration carried out an unprecedented number of executions.

President Biden is personally opposed to capital punishment. But his administration has continued to back a death sentence for Roof, who killed nine Black parishioners as they prayed during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and was the first person sentenced to death for a federal hate crime.

The judges affirmed Roof’s conviction in a 149-page ruling and emphasized that the mass shooting was premeditated and designed to attract widespread attention.

“He used the internet to plan his attack and, using his crimes as a catalyst, intended to foment racial division and strife across America,” they wrote. “He wanted the widest possible publicity for his atrocities, and, to that end, he purposefully left one person alive in the church ‘to tell the story.’ When apprehended, he frankly confessed, with barely a hint of remorse.”

He slashed his Black neighbors’ tires and shot into their home over a BLM sign. And they forgave him.

Roof’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

In a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina praised the court’s decision. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, who helped lead the prosecution, called the massacre “one of the worst events in not only South Carolina’s history but also our nation’s history.” The court’s decision, he said, ensures “that justice will be served for the victims, the survivors and their families.”

At oral argument in May, Roof’s attorney Sapna Mirchandani said her client’s diagnosis of mental illness was long-standing and affirmed by experts. She told the court: “This is actually a medically defined term that multiple experts said applied to him. It wasn’t just a belief.”

The government’s lawyers in court filings 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 legal proceedings. A 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 at oral argument that Roof understood the consequences of his actions and the likelihood that he would be sentenced to death. She urged the court to affirm the jury’s verdict and not to vacate Roof’s death sentence.

Roof’s attorneys told the court that their client represented himself during the penalty phase of his trial 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 legal team also argued that 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 of the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recused themselves from reviewing Roof’s case. The lead federal prosecutor in Roof’s trial, Julius N. Richardson, is now a judge on the court.

Instead, the case was heard and decided by three judges from other courts of appeal: Judges Duane Benton of the 8th Circuit, Ronald Lee Gilman of the 6th Circuit and Kent A. Jordan of the 3rd Circuit.

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