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Charleston church shooter starts appeal in conviction, sentencing in Richmond

White supremacist Dylann Roof on Tuesday appealed his convictions and death sentence in the...
White supremacist Dylann Roof on Tuesday appealed his convictions and death sentence in the killing of nine black church members in South Carolina.(Charleston County Police)
Updated: May. 25, 2021 at 6:43 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT/AP) - The man on death row for killing nine members of a Black South Carolina church started the appeal of his conviction and sentencing in Richmond on Tuesday.

Oral arguments in the case of now 27-year-old Dylann Roof went before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This court handles appeals from district courts across Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

In 2017, Roof became the first person in the country to be sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. Authorities said Roof opened fire on a group of parishioners at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church during the closing prayer of bible study in June 2015.

Before a three-judge panel, Roof’s attorneys argued that an appellate court should vacate his convictions and death sentence, or remand his case to court for a “proper competency evaluation,” something they argue wasn’t done during his trial in 2017.

Two competency hearings were held for Roof; one before his trial even started in 2016 and the second to determine if Roof could represent himself during the sentencing phase in January 2017.

“He waived counsel for one reason and one reason alone, and that was to prevent his attorneys from presenting mental health evidence that he thought would ruin his reputation and undermine the reasons for committing his crime,” said Roof’s appellate attorney Alexandra Yates.

Court documents state Roof stood trial while mentally ill under the “delusion he would be rescued from prison by white-nationalists,” but he believed that rescue would only happen if he kept quiet about his mental state.

“Mr. Roof shunned all mitigation evidence,” said Sapna Mirchandani, another one of Roof’s appellate attorneys. “He had family members, a pastor, people who had known him his whole life who would know he was non-violent and that he was strange.”

Both Mirchandani and Yates argued such testimony may have stopped a federal jury from sentencing him to death.

The federal government argued Tuesday Roof had the chance to present the evidence and did not.

“The Court shouldn’t vacate a death sentence based on a dispute about a mitigating factor that Roof didn’t make any attempt to prove,” said Ann O’Connell Adams, of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Adams also argued, the district court judge noted that he had reviewed prior evaluation of Roof, who she said acknowledged that his white supremacy rescue plan probably wouldn’t happen.

“Roof confirmed that he understood there was a high likelihood that he would be sentenced to death and that the chance of being rescued was very small,” Adams added. “Roof was not making an irrational calculation that his best way to stay alive was to keep out the mental health mitigation evidence.”

Meanwhile, Roof’s lawyers also argued over the jury’s confusion on how to evaluate Roof’s potential for future violence. They claim the Court failed to answer the jury’s question adequately.

“At the government’s urging, and over the defendant’s objection, the Court entered an order broadly precluding Mr. Roof from presenting as mitigation, evidence of the conditions of confinement that he would be subject to if he were to be sentenced to life without parole; the only alternative to a death sentence,” Yates said. “The government then capitalized on this absence of evidence it had self-secured and argued… that Mr. Roof’s two mitigating factors about his lack of future dangerousness and his ability to be safely confined, if spared, were ‘not true’.”

But the Department of Justice still supports the statements made in court in 2017.

“He was free to put on evidence that he was behaving himself in prison, but the prosecutor said that’s not what’s happening,” Adams said. “He’s actually sitting there continuing to make racist writings and having no remorse for his crimes.”

Following his federal trial, Roof was given nine consecutive life sentences after pleading guilty in 2017 to state murder charges, leaving him to await execution in a federal prison and sparing his victims and their families the burden of a second trial.

All of the judges in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers South Carolina, have recused themselves from hearing Roof’s appeal; one of their own, Judge Jay Richardson, prosecuted Roof’s case as an assistant U.S. Attorney. The panel considering Tuesday’s arguments was comprised of judges from several other appellate circuits.

Now the case is in the hands of the panel of three judges. There is no word yet on when a decision could come down.

If unsuccessful in his direct appeal, Roof could file what’s known as a 2255 appeal, or a request that the trial court reviews the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence. He could also petition the U.S. Supreme Court or seek a presidential pardon.

Copyright 2021 WWBT/Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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