Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson of Charleston said she is weighing various choices as she decides whether to pursue a state death penalty trial against convicted Charleston church killer Dylann Roof.
More than a year ago, she announced she was pursuing the death penalty against Roof, 22, a Columbia area, self-defined white supremacist.
But now that a federal jury has given Roof a death penalty sentence, is she changing her mind about pursuing the same thing in state court?
“I have been discussing the options with the victims and victims’ families,” said Wilson, 9th Judicial Circuit solicitor, in response to an email query from The State newspaper late last week.
Roof’s court-appointed attorneys for the state trial, Ashley Pennington and Bill McGuire, have told presiding state Judge J.C. Nicholson that Roof is willing to plead guilty to murder charges in exchange for life in prison without parole. As of yet, Wilson has not accepted that standing offer.
Meanwhile, Charleston lawyer Andy Savage, who represents a number of Roof’s victims’ families, told The State his clients are in favor of allowing Roof to plead guilty to murder charges in state court in exchange for an ironclad agreement that he will never be paroled or be released from prison.
Savage said if Roof gets a life without parole sentence in state court, “he has agreed to waive any appellate rights except he may challenge the competence of his attorneys, a challenge that we believe would be unfounded. In return, he has asked that he be confined exclusively in a federal prison for the remainder of his life. That request is one we endorse.”
Roof already said during his federal trial that he didn’t trust his court-appointed legal team. But he has not filed a formal complaint. And although he has admitted the crime, on Friday he filed an appeal that could lead to the overturning of some of his federal convictions and the death sentence.
Should the federal conviction and sentence be overturned, a state plea deal or a state conviction would keep Roof in prison regardless.
Roof was found guilty in December of killing nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. The jury’s death penalty decision in January came after a high-profile trial that took place amid high security over two months.
Wilson said she’s not necessarily in a hurry for a state trial. Nor is she delaying a decision.
“I am not operating on a deadline except that I understand the importance to the victims of having the state’s cases resolved as expeditiously as possible,” she said.
But she does have some questions she wants answered before she makes a decision.
3 choices, but questions about death
Although Wilson had announced she was seeking the death penalty in September 2015, some nine months elapsed before the federal government announced it would seek a federal death penalty.
After that, various scheduling and procedural matters in both state and federal court allowed federal prosecutors to leapfrog the state’s death penalty timetable and go first.
Now, with the federal trial out of the way, Wilson has three basic options:
▪ To proceed with a state death penalty trial at the Charleston County courthouse at a date to be set, but probably later this year. The courts have the final say-so in scheduling the trial.
▪ To dismiss the existing state death penalty indictments against Roof, a process called nol pros, with an option to re-indict Roof anew in years to come on death penalty charges if, in the federal court system, he eventually is sentenced to life in prison.
▪ To allow Roof to plead guilty in state court to the nine murders and settle for sentences of life without parole for each of the murders. No matter what happened to Roof in the federal system, he would always have a life without patrol sentence hanging over his head in the S.C. prison system.
But Wilson also said she is a “looking to discuss with the new (President Trump) administration in the Department of Justice their stance on the death penalty.”
It has been 14 years since the federal government executed anyone. Since the federal death penalty law was enacted in 1988, only three people have been executed. In a filing in state court last summer, Wilson said she has “no confidence” the federal government would actually seek Roof’s execution.
“While the prior Department of Justice (under President Obama) purportedly supported the death penalty,” Wilson said, “their refusal to follow through with it (in other cases) was a concern of mine. I am hopeful that the new Department of Justice administration is more committed to carrying out the death penalty than the prior administration.”
Wilson said she intends to speak with the Department of Justice once new Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his team are in place.
Wilson also said she is seeking information from the S.C. Department of Corrections regarding the status of the death penalty in South Carolina.
Is a death penalty really a death penalty?
South Carolina’s last execution took place in 2011. There are about 40 inmates on the state’s death row, including four who have been there since the 1980s.
Those cases are in various stages of appeal. If an S.C. inmate’s execution date were to come due, the state would be unable to carry it out, says corrections director Bryan Stirling.
Some drugs used in lethal injections have failed to kill quickly and, many have argued, humanely. The subsequent lawsuits and publicity have made it impossible for the state to obtain the toxic drugs, Stirling said.
Although Wilson did not discuss other considerations that might make her lean toward a guilty plea, they no doubt include, first, the difficulty and time-consuming process of choosing an impartial Charleston County jury and, second, the emotional impact on victims’ relatives of having another trial.
And, Wilson stressed, whatever she does, she must do nothing that would upset Roof’s current conviction and death sentence.
“My ultimate goal is to make sure we do nothing to interfere with their (federal prosecutors’) hard work and that our prosecution serves as a meaningful insurance policy for their trial success,” Wilson said.