The Attorney General announced today that the United States will seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof in South Carolina. The Government filed its Notice of Intent today. The State has its story here. The AG’s short statement is here.
I have posted previously on this subject here and have a related post here. This is unquestionably a strong case for the federal death penalty. It is highly aggravated, there is likely minimal mitigation, and although Roof is entitled to a presumption of innocence and to have the Government prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, there seems to be no serious question of innocence here. As in the Tsarnaev prosecution, this case will likely be all about punishment. As I have suggested previously, however, I think the question now is: who goes first, the State or the Feds? Roof’s state trial is currently scheduled for January, with no trial date set in federal court. I have a suspicion that after today’s announcement, we will see the Feds go first instead, a la Tsarnaev and other high-profile death penalty cases. But that, apparently, remains to be worked out between DOJ and the South Carolina prosecutors (assuming they do not already have an agreement in place – if so, I have not yet seen it).
Also, although it did not happen in the Tsarnaev case, do not rule out the possibility of Roof offering to plead guilty so as to take the death penalty off the table. That does not happen as a matter of course, and it requires additional procedures in Washington, but it remains a possibility. The fact that the Feds pressed forward with the death penalty for Tsarnaev, however, suggests they are likely to do the same with Roof.
South Carolina last carried out an execution in May 2011. The State has carried out 43 executions since 1985. The United States last carried out an execution in 2003 (Louis Jones). The Feds have executed only three people since 1963 (Jones, drug kingpin Raul Garza, and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; Garza and McVeigh were executed in 2001, within eight days of one another).