A federal judge in Charleston on Thursday granted yet another continuance in setting a trial date for Dylann Roof, the accused killer in the Charleston church slayings last summer.
During a brief hearing, assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson indicated to Judge Richard Gergel that the government would have a decision on whether it will seek the death penalty against Roof possibly by early April.
A lack of a decision so far has been the major stumbling block in setting a court date.
But Richardson said the U.S. Department of Justice is far along in a complicated decision-making process. “We have made significant progress.”
If the government decides to seek the death penalty, Richardson said, “Your honor, the government is ready for trial now.”
Roof’s attorney, David Bruck, told Gergel a trial could easily be avoided if the government decides not to seek the death penalty.
“He (Roof) has offered to plead guilty – everybody knows that,” Bruck told Gergel. “The only obstacle is whether the government will insist on the death penalty.”
Still, when Gergel asked Bruck if he was ready for trial if the government does seek the death penalty, Bruck replied, “No, your honor.”
Bruck told Gergel he might be ready to go to trial within a few months but declined to set a date.
Roof waived his right to be in court on Thursday.
If the government decides on the death penalty, there likely would be a two-stage trial that could last months. In the first stage, a jury would consider evidence and decide on Roof’s guilt or innocence. In the second stage, the same jury would decide on death or life in prison without parole.
A death penalty trial could last for several months and be costly. Jury selection alone would be a time-consuming process.
If Roof were to plead guilty, however, there likely would be a relatively short, non-jury hearing, followed by the judge sentencing Roof to life in prison without parole.
In a federal indictment handed down last summer, Roof was charged with the hate crime slayings of nine African-Americans at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston on June 17. Roof, 21, an avowed white supremacist, is from Columbia. Survivors told police he sat through an hour-long bible study, then opened fire, killing nine of the 12 people there.
The federal government’s delay in issuing a decision means it is more likely than ever that the state prosecutor, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, will try Roof first. She is seeking the death penalty in state court. That trial is scheduled to begin in early July.