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Panel affirms death sentence of Charleston church shooter

A three-judge appellate panel upheld the death penalty for the self-proclaimed white nationalist who murdered nine Black church parishioners after they welcomed him into their Bible study.

(CN) — The Fourth Circuit on Wednesday upheld Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof's murder conviction and death sentence, pointing out he confessed to the killings with little sign of remorse.

In an unsigned, 149-page opinion, a three-judge panel of the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court wrote, "No cold record or careful parsing of statues and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did. His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose.”

Roof, now 27, was convicted in 2016 for the shooting deaths of nine Black churchgoers that he gunned down at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. The parishioners were engaged in a Wednesday evening Bible study and when they closed with eyes for prayer, the self-proclaimed white nationalist opened fire on the group that invited him in to join them.

In January 2017, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sentenced Roof to death after the jury returned a guilty verdict on 33 federal charges. Gergel had declined to allow Roof to enter a guilty plea to avoid the death penalty. Two months later, Roof pleaded guilty to all the state charges against him and was given nine consecutive life sentences on those charges.

On appeal in the federal case, Roof’s public defenders sought to have the case vacated and remanded for a new competency hearing. They argue their client was “disconnected from reality“ when he acted as his own attorney during the 2016-17 murder and hate crimes trial after a falling out with his counsel in which Roof refused to cooper with a mental health defense.

Federal prosecutors pushed back on the argument that Roof should be granted another competency hearing. pointing to expert testimony at trial.

“There is ample evidence that he understood the facts and the proceedings," Justice Department attorney Ann O’Connell Adams said during oral arguments in May, adding that an expert who evaluated Roof found the defendant "had the ability to assist his counsel, he had the choice whether or not he would cooperate with them.”

In fact, in his closing statements during the sentencing phase of trial, Roof told jurors, “There is nothing wrong with me psychologically. Anything you heard from my lawyers in the last phase, I ask you to forget it.”

The defense team claimed the trial court relied too heavily on Roof's in-court statement, and said jurors were misled to believe he could not be safely contained in prison with a life sentence because he might incite violence among other inmates. Roof is the first person to be sentenced to death for hate crimes.

But the Fourth Circuit ruled Wednesday that the lower court did not err when it decided Roof was competent to stand trial, saying Gergel "managed this difficult case with skill and compassion for all concerned, including Roof himself."

The appeals court also emphasized the horrific nature of the massacre.

"Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible-study and worship. They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder," the ruling states.

It adds, "He used the internet to plan his attack and, using his crimes as a catalyst, intended to foment racial division and strife across America. 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."

The Fourth Circuit panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Duane Benton of the Eighth Circuit, Kent A. Jordan of the Third Circuit and Ronald Lee Gilman of the Sixth Circuit.

The judges were brought in from other circuits because all Fourth Circuit judges recused themselves from the case. No specific reason was given, but it is likely because a newer member on the court, Julius N. Richardson, was a federal prosecutor in Roof's trial.

Categories:Appeals, Criminal

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