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July 9, 2016

Notable sparring over sequence of capital trials for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof

In this post not long after the racist mass murderer committed by Dylann Storm Roof, I flagged the possibility of a double capital prosecution by both the feds and South Carolina in this post. Now that, a year later, this prospect has become a reality, the logistical dynamics are presenting interesting legal issues. And this new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Death Penalty Freeze Puts Charleston Church Shooting Trials in Conflict: State prosecutors say likelihood of execution gives their case precedence," explores some of this novel capital ground:

The alleged shooter of a South Carolina church congregation is scheduled to appear in state court next week amid a dispute over whether a state or federal case against him should go to trial first.

State prosecutors said in June their case against Dylann Roof should happen first because, in part, it is more likely to result in the death penalty. There is currently an effective moratorium on executions in the federal prison system, due to an internal review of the drugs used to execute prisoners.

South Carolina prosecutors charged Mr. Roof, 22 years old, with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder last year for the June 2015 slaying of nine parishioners at an African-American church, and Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said she would pursue the death penalty. Federal prosecutors, who charged Mr. Roof within weeks of the state indictment, are also seeking a death sentence.

Mr. Roof has pleaded not guilty but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty if the state or federal governments dropped requests for the death penalty. A lawyer for Mr. Roof didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The federal trial is scheduled to begin in November, while the state trial is slated for January. A hearing in state court is set for Wednesday to discuss the scheduling issues.

The dueling prosecutions have raised complicated procedural issues. Ms. Wilson said in court papers that because Mr. Roof is in the state’s custody, if he were sentenced to death in the federal trial, but received a life sentence in the state trial, the state would likely never relinquish custody of him, defeating any chance of an execution.

Ms. Wilson also argued that because the federal government last executed a prisoner in 2003, the state couldn’t trust that a death penalty verdict in the federal trial will actually result in an execution. “Because of the apparent unwillingness of the United States to implement a sentence of death, the state submits that the outcome of the federal trial has little to no relevance to the defendant’s ultimate fate,” Ms Wilson wrote. “For that reason, it disserves the victims to ask them to endure two trials, but the United States nonetheless has imposed its contrary will.”

Lawyers for Mr. Roof argued in court papers filed Wednesday that issues surrounding scheduling could be easily resolved if prosecutors would remove their request for the death penalty and accept Mr. Roof’s plea. “It was predictable that the unprecedented decision of both the state and federal governments to seek the execution of the same man at the same time would lead to scheduling problems,” defense attorneys wrote.

Federal prosecutors haven’t responded to the requests for the state trial to go first. In a letter to victims’ families Wednesday, South Carolina U.S. Attorney Beth Drake wrote, “While it may appear in court pleadings that the state and federal court are both working towards a speedy trial, at the end of the day, we are all after the same thing—justice.”

Mr. Roof’s attorneys have moved to dismiss the federal case, saying it ignores the division between state and federal jurisdictions.

A few prior related posts:

July 9, 2016 at 10:08 AM | Permalink

Comments

This is an unnecessary problem since allowing S.C. to by itself try the case would have did the trick. A double prosecution complicates things.

This might go against my sentiments on punishment since it is more likely SC would execute him, but stand by it. This should have been a state prosecution and the federal prosecution is misguided. Any federal interest appears protected by the state prosecution.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 9, 2016 12:29:02 PM

One might think that simple federalism would permit, nay mandate, that the state trial proceed first.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jul 9, 2016 8:41:05 PM

One might think that, but perhaps add a bit more on why it is "mandated" in your view.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 10, 2016 12:52:06 AM

Under the Constitution, when state and federal government occupy the same regulatory spheres and there is no preemption, the state government and its interests usually are dominant. This is a "structural" argument.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jul 10, 2016 10:22:44 AM

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