Crime & Courts

Dylann Roof to plead guilty to state murder charges, get life without parole

Timeline of Dylann Roof's trial from day of Charleston shooting to death penalty

After nine parishioners were shot to death June, 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, suspected shooter Dylann Roof was arrested in North Carolina the next day. Eighteen months later, after a six day trial, Roof was found guilty on all 33
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After nine parishioners were shot to death June, 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, suspected shooter Dylann Roof was arrested in North Carolina the next day. Eighteen months later, after a six day trial, Roof was found guilty on all 33

Convicted church killer Dylann Roof will plead guilty in April to state murder charges and receive life without parole, Charleston prosecutor Scarlett Wilson said Friday.

Roof, 22, a white supremacist from the Columbia area, already has been sentenced to death after a federal trial that took place in December and January.

A jury found him guilty in December of carrying out the June 2015 race-based massacre of nine African-Americans at a Wednesday night Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. In January, he was then sentenced to death by the same federal jury.

Wilson’s decision not to go for a second death penalty trial means the survivors and families of those slain will avoid the ordeal of a yet another emotional proceeding.

It also means the city of Charleston will avoid the expense of a long grueling trial and its attendant high-security issues. Roof’s execution-style slayings stunned the nation, attracted worldwide publicity, drew a visit to Charleston by then-President Obama and led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the S.C. State House.

Wilson’s decision to accept Roof’s guilty plea also will make it easier for U.S. Judge Richard Gergel, who passed the formal death sentence on Roof, to unseal numerous federal court records pertaining to Roof’s mental state before, during and after the killings. With the state trial pending, Gergel has kept them sealed.

Roof will plead guilty to the state charges on April 10 at 1 p.m., Wilson said. She announced the information through an email she sent Friday morning to the families of the victims. Relatives of victims can make statements, but the entire proceeding will likely be finished that afternoon, she said in an interview.

“I write with great news that the State’s case is ready to wrap up,” Wilson said in her email.

Roof, whom evidence showed had radicalized himself through white supremacist and racist Internet sites, was convicted on 33 charges, nine of them involving hate crimes, in December. South Carolina does not have a hate crimes law.

Evidence in the case, including testimony from survivors, showed Roof methodically executed his unarmed victims, including a 87-year-old grandmother, Susie Jackson, as she lay hiding under a table. He did not kill three people, one an 11-year-old girl. Roof, who has expressed no remorse, said he slaughtered his victims in hopes of igniting a race war and restoring the days of segregation.

The federal conviction and death sentence left unresolved the state murder charges against Roof. For months, Roof’s attorneys and prosecutors had discussed exactly how to go forward with Roof’s state case – to seek another death penalty, which could only be gotten after another grueling, and expensive, trial, or to allow Roof to plead guilty and have him get life without parole.

Roof’s trial and sentencing in December and January were emotional affairs. Testimony at times left many weeping. Many of the more than 50 witnesses – survivors and relatives of the victims – did not want to undergo another trial, especially since Roof received the death penalty.

But Roof would not agree to plead guilty and accept a life sentence unless he could be assured he would not have to spend time in a South Carolina corrections facility, which he believed was less secure than a federal prison, sources familiar with the case said.

After pleading guilty in state court, Roof will go a federal facility, mostly likely the high-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where the federal death row is located, said Andy Savage, a Charleston lawyer who represents families of the victims as well as the three survivors.

In her email, Wilson told the victim’s families that the state trial was to provide an “insurance policy to the federal conviction and sentence ... . A guilty plea in state court means that if something very, very, very unlikely were to happen at the federal level, the State sentence would take effect and he would serve life in prison – and no more trials,” Wilson’s email said.

Savage, who represents five families and the three survivors, said Friday his clients approve.

“This is terrific,” Savage said. “My people just wanted to put an end to it. They wanted to be assured that this guy is not going to be on the front page of the newspaper every day. The plea guarantees the best option for Roof is to just live in a six by eight foot cell the rest of his life.”

Savage continued, “There were some people who wanted the death penalty, but the majority wanted him not to have an easy out. The easy out would be for him not to reflect on what he had done.”

Savage then quoted Felicia Sanders, one of the three survivors, who had seen her son, Tawanza Sanders, executed by Roof.

“She wanted Roof to think every day about the last words he heard from her son, Tawanza – ‘We mean you no harm, you don’t have to do this,’” Savage said.

Savage said on hearing Friday there would not be another trial, Sanders’s first words were, “Praise God!”