Federal prosecutors will seek a death sentence for Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing nine parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church last year.
“Following the department’s rigorous review process to thoroughly consider all relevant factual and legal issues, I have determined that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement Tuesday. “The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision.”
In a court filing on Tuesday, prosecutors outlined a series of reasons that justified a death sentence for the June 2015 attacks inside the Emanuel AME Church, which they described as a carefully planned, racially motivated massacre.
They argued that Roof “demonstrated a lack of remorse,” had specifically targeted the church’s Bible study group to “magnify the societal impact” of the rampage and that “his animosity towards African Americans played a role in the murders.” In addition, prosecutors highlighted that three of the victims were between the ages of 70 and 87. The federal death penalty statute says that if a victim is particularly young or old, that can be one of the aggravating factors to warrant a death sentence.
Roof was indicted on indicted on federal hate crime charges last summer, some of which were eligible for the death penalty, but the Justice Department spent months considering whether to seek a death sentence, causing the federal trial to be delayed multiple times.
State prosecutors had already announced their plans to seek the death penalty for Roof, who has been charged with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder for the shooting spree.
In the aftermath of the church shooting, authorities said they found a racist manifesto Roof had posted on his website and modified just hours before the rampage. This site was filled with racial stereotypes and diatribes against black, Jewish and Hispanic people as well as photos of Roof holding a .45-caliber Glock pistol and a Confederate flag.
Last month, Joey Meek — a friend with whom Roof stayed in the weeks before the rampage — pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI and concealing his knowledge of the crimes. Meek had told The Post that before the church shooting, Roof had spoken of going to the church and doing “something crazy.”
An attorney for Roof had said he would plead guilty to the federal hate crime charges, but also said he could not advise him until federal authorities decided on the death penalty. As a result, the judge entered a “not guilty” plea for Roof at a hearing last summer, essentially a temporary plea until the death penalty decision could be made.
It was unclear how the death penalty decision announced Tuesday could impact Roof’s ultimate plea. A plea can ultimately be used as a way to avoid a death penalty in capital cases.
In perhaps the most famous example, Theodore J. Kaczynski — known as the Unabomber — ultimately struck a deal and pleaded guilty the day opening arguments were going to begin in his trial, reversing his longstanding stance of pleading not guilty. As a result, he agreed to a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole and evading the death penalty.
While the federal government has decided to seek this sentence, it cannot execute anyone right now. The Justice Department effectively has a moratorium on executions while it reviews the federal death penalty statute, and federal officials have said that the Bureau of Prisons does not possess doses of drugs needed for lethal injections due to the ongoing review.
Federal death sentences are rare, and executions under this statute are even rarer. Since the federal death penalty statute was reinstated in 1988 and expanded in 1994, the federal government has put three inmates to death.
This is a developing story and will be updated. First published: 5:15 p.m.