S.C. Church Shooting Judge Asked to Toss Death Penalty

     (CN) – Attorneys for the white man accused of killing nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, S.C. church have asked a federal judge to rule the death penalty unconstitutional a move they say will enable their client to plead guilty and serve life in prison.
     In a 34-page motion filed late Monday, a trio of public defenders representing Dylann Roof contend that the jury decision-making process in death penalty cases is so flawed as to violate the death penalty defendant’s constitutional rights.
     They based their argument on the findings of the Capital Jury Project, which interviewed nearly 2,000 jurors from more than 350 trials in over and dozen states and identified “seven deadly sins” of capital juries and jury selection procedure that, the lawyers say, unfairly increases the likelihood of a death verdict.
     These are: “premature decision-making; death bias; mitigation impairment; a widespread belief that death is mandatory in some cases; evasion of responsibility for sentencing decisions; the persistence of race as a factor in sentencing decisions; and the belief that life sentences will not result in lengthy incarcerations,” the motion says.
     Both the Federal government and the state of South Carolina are seeking the death penalty for Roof, who is charged with hate crimes and scores of other counts stemming from the June 17, 2015, murders at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
     After his arrest, several web postings of Roof emerged showing him posing with the gun said to be the murder weapon and in front on a Confederate flag.
     Prosecutors have said Roof, who lived in Lexington County, S.C. before the shootings and is now being held in the county lockup in North Charleston, hoped that his actions would lead to a race war.
     They say he methodically planned the shooting, then spent an hour in a Bible study class with his victims before he opened fire.
     In addition to the nine that died, three people were wounded. Two of them, Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, spoke at last week’s Democratic National Convention.
     Roof’s federal trial is set for November. He also faces the death penalty in state court where he is charged with murder in a trial set to begin early next year.
     In the filing, Assistant Federal Public Defender Sarah Gannett, the lead attorney for the defense, said while some aspects of jury selection in death penalty cases have been considered by the courts, other issues she puts forward are being raised for the first time.
     While the law provides that all citizens have an opportunity to sit on juries, juries willing to impose a death penalty don’t represent a cross-section of the community, a violation of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, the filing said.
     Gannett said “[i]t is well understood that, thanks to death-qualification, ‘capital juries are more likely to be white, older, predominately male, Protestant, and less educated than other criminal juries. then the society from which they were picked.”
     “In addition,” the filing says, “numerous studies have indicated that death-qualified guilt-phase juries are less favorable to defendants than more broadly-constituted juries. … and empirical evidence demonstrates … that members of protected classes women and minorities are excluded.”
     She also noted that excluding jurors who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons violates constitutional protections against requiring religious tests for holding office or having positions of public trust.
     Both Roof’s state and federal attorneys have said he is willing to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.
     The public defenders want U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel yank the death penalty from the table and allow the federal case to proceed as a non-capital case.
     Then Roof could plead guilty and “would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release and this prosecution would conclude,” the motion says.
     The court has not indicated when it will rule on the request.

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