In 2015, a then 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire during Bible study lessons in a Charleston, South Carolina church, senselessly murdering nine Black churchgoers. The victims included three reverends (one of whom was a former state Senator), a librarian and two senior citizens, including one woman who had worked within the church for more than 30 years. Following that racist attack, Roof became the first person ever in U.S. history sentenced to death under federal hate crime legislation.
And despite his lawyer’s appeal to the court, Roof’s death sentence does not appear to be going away any time soon.
Meg Kinnard and Denise Lavoie of the Associated Press reported that on Wednesday, Aug. 25, “a federal appeals court upheld Dylann Roof’s conviction and death sentence, saying the legal record cannot even capture the ‘full horror’ of what he did.”
A three-judge panel in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, flatly rejected claims made by Roof’s defendants, who claimed the young white man should be ruled incompetent to stand trial for the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church.
“In his appeal, Roof’s attorneys argued that he was wrongly allowed to represent himself during sentencing, a critical phase of his trial,” Kinnard and Lavoie reported. “Roof successfully prevented jurors from hearing evidence about his mental health, ‘under the delusion,’ his attorneys argued, that ‘he would be rescued from prison by white-nationalists — but only, bizarrely, if he kept his mental impairments out of the public record.’”
In court filings, Roof’s lawyers asked the judges to send his conviction back to a lower court so he could undergo a “proper competency evaluation.” However, the judges flatly denied the request, saying Roof was fully competent to stand trial for his behavior and issuing what many called a “scathing rebuke” of his actions that deadly day.
“Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible study and worship,” the appellate panel wrote in their ruling. “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 [that] would hear of the mass murder. 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.”
According to Kinnard and Lavoie, “following his federal trial, Roof was given nine consecutive life sentences after pleading guilty in 2017 to state murder charges, leaving him to await execution in a federal prison and sparing his victims and their families the burden of a second trial.”
If and when Roof should ultimately face execution, however, is still unclear. Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland officially halted all federal executions so the Justice Department could review their existing policies and procedures. The move was spurred by a run of executions towards the end of President Trump’s time in office when the government executed 13 people within six months.
Should Roof’s attorneys continue to fight his hate crime conviction, his case could be sent to the full 4th Circuit for an additional appeal, or his lawyers could attempt to have his case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.