U.S. Seeks Death Penalty For Charleston Church Shooting Suspect But Victims’ Families Prefer Mercy

© Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was among the nine people killed in the the June 17, 2015, shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in…
© Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was among the nine people killed in the the June 17, 2015, shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in…

The Rev. Sharon Risher often thinks these days about what she calls her “humanness”: the passing impulse to crave the execution of the white supremacist accused of killing her mother and eight other black churchgoers last year.

“My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Ms. Risher said. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”

But after delays, the Federal District Court here will begin on Monday the long process of individually questioning prospective jurors for the capital trial of Dylann S. Roof, who is charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, in the June 17, 2015, killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mr. Roof, whom a judge on Friday declared competent to stand trial, has offered, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, to plead guilty. The government has refused to make such a plea agreement.

The 17-month path to Mr. Roof’s first death penalty trial — the state of South Carolina is also seeking his execution — has been marked by public demonstrations of forgiveness and reconciliation. But the federal government’s decision to pursue Mr. Roof’s execution is widely questioned, and it is in defiance of the wishes and recommendations of survivors of the attack, many family members of the dead and some Justice Department officials. Even South Carolina’s acrimonious debate about the display of the Confederate battle flag outside the State House was less divisive in this state, polling shows.

In May, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced her decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Roof, and critics of that choice make different, if sometimes overlapping, arguments.

Some are opposed to capital punishment in every instance because they doubt its efficacy or morality. Others argue that because a death sentence for Mr. Roof would prompt years of appeals, the decision can only protract the emotional agony of a massacre that rattled the nation. And still others contend that executing a young man like Mr. Roof, who is 22, could allow him to escape decades of punishment.

“I want that guy every morning when he wakes up, and every time he has an opportunity for quiet and solitude, to think of what Tywanza said to him: ‘We mean you no harm. You don’t have to do this,’” said Andrew J. Savage III, a Charleston lawyer, referring to Tywanza Sanders, a 26-year-old man who died in the attack. Mr. Savage represents three survivors, including Mr. Sanders’s mother, and many family members of the victims who became known here as the Emanuel Nine.

But Ms. Lynch chose to seek the death penalty after a contentious review process that included South Carolina’s top federal prosecutor siding with Mr. Roof’s defense lawyers in their offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence. Ms. Lynch said that “the nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision.”

In a court filing the same day the attorney general made her decision public, the Justice Department cited nine aggravating factors, including that Mr. Roof had “expressed hatred and contempt towards African-Americans, as well as other groups, and his animosity toward African-Americans played a role in the murder charges in the indictment.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times – Alan Blinder

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