A federal judge grilled a federal prosecutor Tuesday in Charleston on when the case of accused church gunman Dylann Roof would be ready for trial and whether prosecutors would seek the death penalty against him.
Assistant U.S. attorney Jay Richardson avoided giving U.S. Judge Richard Gergel a specific date, telling the judge the government would be ready to go to trial at any time but that Attorney General Loretta Lynch has not yet decided on whether to seek the death penalty.
The federal government’s lack of a decision on a date for a trial means it is all but certain that the state prosecutor, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, will handle the first death penalty trial in state court against Roof. That trial is scheduled to begin next July.
Richardson told Gergel the earliest the federal government might decide whether to seek the death penalty against Roof would be as early as February, or as late as June. In any case, it is unlikely – given the complexity of death penalty cases – that federal prosecutors would be ready to proceed before Wilson. The Lowcountry prosecutor announced her decision in early September.
Federal prosecutors still could decide not to seek the death penalty and allow Roof to plead guilty, in which case he would be given life without parole in prison.
In any case, Gergel was not pleased. He told Richardson that Roof’s federal defense team, led by David Bruck, is preparing for a death penalty case and on a weekly basis are submitting bills for costs incurred with the case, which are considerably more expensive than a regular case.
If the federal government is not going to seek the death penalty, the money being spent on Roof’s death penalty defense “is wasteful,” Gergel said. “We have finite resources.”
Roof, 21, has qualified as an indigent defendant, and his legal bills – the size of which has not yet been made public – are paid for by taxpayers. He waived his right to appear in court.
In contrast, Roof’s lawyer Bruck told the judge that his client is ready to plead guilty immediately if the government does not seek the death penalty.
“The court is aware this case could be concluded very, very quickly – it’s a question of the death penalty,” Bruck told Gergel.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Richardson also told the court that law enforcement had seized computers “by consent or search warrant” and is still scouring their hard drives for information about Roof.
Most evidence has been gathered and turned over to defense lawyers, but some is still being evaluated, said Richardson, deeming the process a “rolling discovery.”
In an Oct. 1 hearing, Gergel told the lawyers to report back to him in early December to tell him when the case was going to be ready for trial.
Roof is charged with federal hate crimes in the June killings of nine African-Americans at a downtown Charleston church.
Later Tuesday, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles told The State newspaper that the federal government usually takes longer to reach a decision about the death penalty than the state.
“In state court, the decision rests solely with the state prosecutor,” Nettles said. “In the federal system, the ultimate decision rests with the Attorney General. But before the decision reaches her desk, there is a lengthy process during which input by multiple parties takes place.”
In court Tuesday, Richardson told Gergel that the Justice Department in Washington has nearly completed the first phase of deciding whether to seek the death penalty and will be forwarding the information to Justice’s Capital Case Committee by the end of December. That committee will eventually make a recommendation to top Justice officials.