Federal Judge Richard Gergel told federal prosecutors Thursday he wants to know as soon as possible if the government is going to seek the death penalty in the hate-crimes murder case against Dylann Roof.
Speaking at a hearing in Charleston, Gergel told lawyers for both Roof and the government that a death penalty trial is expensive and since he is drawing up the court budget for next year, he needs to know as soon as possible whether the government will seek the death penalty.
“This is one of those things where time matters,” Gergel told the lawyers. “It’s you-all’s (the government’s) decision to make, but the longer it takes, it leaves a lot in doubt.”
Roof is charged with federal hate crimes in the June killings of nine African-Americans at a downtown Charleston church. Those crimes are eligible for the death penalty, but the government has not yet made a decision on whether to pursue it.
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Federal prosecutor Jay Richardson told Gergel that the U.S. Justice Department, which will make the decision, has given the Roof case its “highest priority” but has no set time by which it will decide. Attorney General Lorretta Lynch will make the decision, he said.
However, Richardson said he could not give the judge a specific date as to when the government will announce its decision.
Richardson told the judge the prosecution has turned over “more than 15,000 pages” of documents, along with voluminous video and electronic evidence, to the defense. Just two weeks ago, Richardson said, the government turned over thousands of more documents. “The core of the case has been provided,” Richardson said.
Roof’s defense lawyer David Bruck told the judge that if the case were a death penalty case it clearly will take much more time to mount a defense.
However, Bruck said, if the government did not seek the death penalty and allowed Roof to plead guilty, the case could be settled “almost immediately.” In that case, Roof would serve a life sentence without parole.
Roof did not appear in court Thursday. He waived his right to be present, his lawyer said. Roof also waived his right to a speedy trial. Under federal law, a defendant is guaranteed the right to a fair and speedy trial within 70 days unless a judge grants an extension based on what is called “the interest of justice.”
Gergel told the lawyers for both sides to report back in early December for another hearing to report on when they think the case will be ready for trial.
Since Thursday’s hearing was largely about technical matters, there were only a sprinkling of relatives of the victims Roof is charged with killing.
In a July 31 arraignment in Charleston before a federal magistrate judge, Bruck told federal magistrate judge Bristow Marchant that Roof wants to plead guilty, avoid a trial and get a life sentence.
But Bruck said then that until he knows whether the federal government will seek the death penalty, he cannot advise Roof on how to plead.
At that time, Marchant entered a “not guilty” plea on Roof’s behalf.
On June 17, Roof, who is 21, white and from the Columbia area, is accused of driving to Charleston, sitting through a Wednesday night Bible study gathering, then shooting and killing nine parishioners at the historic “Mother” Emanuel AME Church. He is an avowed white supremacist who has published his extremist racial views on the Internet, according to a federal indictment in the case.
State prosecutors are pursuing their own set of charges. On July 7, Roof was indicted on nine counts of murder by a Charleston County grand jury. On Sept. 3, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced she is seeking the death penalty. State Judge J.C. Nicholson has set a tentative trial date on those charges for July 11 of next year.
Charleston Shooting Timeline
June 17: Nine African-Americans shot to death at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston
June 18: Dylann Roof arrested in Shelby, N.C., charged with killings
June 19: Relatives of victims, appearing in court, say they forgive Roof
July 7: Charleston County grand jury indicts Roof on nine murder and other charges
July 22: Federal grand jury indicts Roof on hate crime charges involving death
Sept. 3: 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announces she will seek death penalty in state court