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Monday, February 26, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Supreme Court rejects appeal of Charleston church shooter

The justices declined to take up the death sentence of Dylann Roof, who fatally shot nine Black churchgoers after joining them for Bible study.

(CN) — Mass murderer Dylann Roof is running out of legal options after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal challenging his death sentence for the killings of Black churchgoers in South Carolina.

Keeping in place Roof's death sentence, the high court did not provide comment on the rejection of his case Tuesday.

Roof sat in on a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, before opening fire with a handgun and killing nine parishioners, all Black. He had released a manifesto before the shooting calling for a race war.

The gunman argued in his petition to the Supreme Court that he should be given a new trial because he was forced to represent himself due to his counsel wanting to depict him as mentally ill. Roof fired his attorneys after a district court told him that his counsel may introduce evidence depicting him as mentally ill without his permission.

His current attorneys claim he was also forced to represent himself during the sentencing phase. Roof consistently expressed concerns that choosing to depict himself as mentally ill is a deeply personal decision that should be left for him to decide.

“Though his crime was undeniably horrible and the government’s case in aggravation substantial, Roof had a meaningful non-mental-health mitigation defense that jurors should have heard.” the petition stated.

Roof had learned shortly before trial that his counsel intended to depict him as autistic and psychotic, according to the petition. He claims he feared his political motive for the shooting – which, according to Roof’s confession, was to agitate race relations – may not be at the forefront of the public's mind should he be considered mentally ill.

“Roof explained that he hoped to avoid a death sentence, but cared more about not being labeled mentally ill, which he considered a fate worse than death,” the petition states.

At trial, Roof was convicted on all 33 federal charges, including nine counts of using a firearm to commit murder and 24 civil rights violations. The court granted his motion motion to represent himself again in the four-day penalty phase of trial, during which Roof presented no evidence, cross-examined no witnesses, and made no coherent argument for a life sentence. It took only a few hours for the jury to agree on the death penalty in 2017.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, affirmed Roof’s convictions and death sentence last year. He had argued before a three-judge panel that his right to be the master of his own defense was denied and that the district court should have never told his counsel they could move forward with depicting him as mentally ill without his permission. The appeals court rejected his claim, finding it was up to counsel whether to bring up mental health issues regardless of the client's approval.

Roof, 28, is one of 44 prisoners on federal death row. He is the first person in the U.S. to receive a death sentence for federal hate crime charges.

He is being held at a maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and can still pursue other appeals.

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal

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