CHARLESTON, S.C. — The white man accused of killing nine black churchgoers in what authorities said was a racially motivated crime during Bible study will face a death penalty trial, even though not all the victims’ families agree with capital punishment, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Thursday that some crimes are just so heinous they require the most serious punishment the state can give.
“This was the ultimate crime, and justice from our state calls for the ultimate punishment,” Wilson said, reading a three-minute statement outside her Charleston office. She took no questions.
Wilson filed paperwork saying she would seek the death penalty against 21-year-old Dylann Roof a few hours before her statement. Her reasons: more than two people were killed and others’ lives were put at risk.
Roof is charged under U.S. hate crime laws as well, and federal prosecutors haven’t decided if they will also seek the death penalty. Federal authorities have said Roof wrote online of fomenting racial violence and used racial slurs in a personal manuscript in which he decried integration.
Survivors also told police he used racial insults during the attack.
Wilson said she understands the desire of some victims’ families to forgive Roof and that some do not believe in the death penalty, but she said forgiveness doesn’t eliminate the consequences of Roof’s actions.
“Making such a weighty decision is an awesome responsibility,” Wilson said. “People who have already been victimized should not bear the burden of making the decisions on behalf of an entire community. They shouldn’t have to weigh the concerns of other people. They shouldn’t have to consider the facts of the case.”
Roof’s lawyers did not respond to Wilson’s decision.
But Thursday’s motion doesn’t guarantee the case goes to trial. In a number of other murder cases in South Carolina, solicitors have filed notices to seek the death penalty and used them as bargaining chips to get a defendant to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison. Roof’s lawyers said in federal court July 31 that he would have been willing to plead guilty to the hate crimes charges, but he wanted to wait to see if prosecutors would want to put him to death.
In her filing, Wilson said she intends to present evidence on Roof’s mental state, adult and juvenile criminal record and other conduct, as well as his apparent lack of remorse for the killings.
Roof faces state charges including nine murder counts in the June 17 slayings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is expected in court again on those charges in October.
Public pressure and media attention on the case likely made it impossible for Wilson not to seek death, said Colin Miller, an expert on criminal law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“This has to be understood as part of a continuum,” he said. “In this case, likely this was viewed as the only acceptable path that was to be taken by the solicitor.”
Relatives of shooting victims notably spoke out at Roof’s first court appearance, telling the alleged shooter they forgave him for the shooting and prayed God would have mercy on him.
Wilson said she has met many times with survivors and families of shooting victims. She said their desires played into her ultimate decision, but that she appreciated that they all respected her decision to seek the death penalty.
“It’s definitely something a solicitor will take into account — the wishes of the family and what they desire in terms of how the case is going to proceed,” Miller said.
Andy Savage, a Charleston attorney who represents some of the survivors and victims’ families, commended Wilson for considering his clients’ thoughts on whether Roof should face death. Some of his clients may oppose the death penalty for religious reasons but also understood the decision was up to the state, Savage said.
“In the big picture, if you see why these people are involved, it’s because they were in a church on a Wednesday evening at Bible study,” Savage said. “They’re not Sunday Christians. They’re 24-7 Christians. They believe in the sanctity of life. They believe in forgiveness. … So for them, to not be proponent of the death penalty is no surprise.”
Ultimately, Savage said, his clients want Roof to be found guilty and punished.
“They want a conviction, and they want this guy to disappear and never to see civilization again,” Savage said. “And hopefully that is because he’s going to have to live in a six-by-nine cell.”