Aug 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Federal court upholds death sentence for Charleston church shooter

Dylan Roof appearing in court in July 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Dylann Roof appearing in court in July 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Grace Beahm-Pool/Getty Images

A federal appeals court upheld the convictions and death sentence for Dylann Roof, who was found guilty of murder for killing nine members of a Black church congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, according to AP.

Why it matters: The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel's ruling sustains the first death sentence for a federal hate crime, but it is unknown if Roof will be executed after Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a moratorium on the death penalty in July.

Roof's attorneys argued in the appeal that he was wrongly allowed to represent himself during sentencing and prevented jurors from hearing evidence about his mental health, according to AP.

  • His attorneys asked that his convictions and death sentence should be vacated or his case should be sent back to court so a jury can hear evidence regarding his mental impairments.
  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled the trial judge was right to find Roof was competent to stand trial during sentencing.
    • “No cold record or careful parsing of statutes 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,” the panel wrote in its ruling.

Flashback: In 2017, Roof was sentenced to nine life sentences, one for each worshipper at Mother Emanuel AME Church that he shot dead. He was also sentenced to death on federal hate crime charges because he had purposefully targeted Black victims.

The big picture: Though Roof's sentence was upheld, all federal executions have been halted while the Department of Justice reviews its death penalty policies and procedures.

  • Garland said in July that "serious concerns" have been raised about the use of the death penalty, "including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases."

What's next: Roof can ask the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the panel's ruling, petition the Supreme Court or seek a presidential pardon, according to AP.

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