US federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof for the racially motivated murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, last summer, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Tuesday.
"The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," Lynch said in a brief statement, adding that the Department of Justice had taken into account "all relevant factual and legal issues."
Federal death penalties are relatively rare. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past half century, and none since 2003. The last person to be legally killed by the US federal government, not by a state, was a Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr.,, who was executed for murdering an Army recruit.
That said, even if he was handed a death sentence and that was upheld on appeal and that sentence was not commuted, Roof, 22, can't actually be executed, for the time being.
There has been a moratorium on federal executions in effect since 2010 due to an ongoing internal review of death penalty protocol, specifically about issues surrounding the lethal injection method.
In 2014, President Barack Obama ordered an expanded review after a botched execution in Oklahoma using an untested cocktail of lethal injection drugs left an inmate — who was being executed by the state of Oklahoma, not the federal government — convulsing and writhing on a gurney for almost 45 minutes.
The initial review, in part, stemmed from the ongoing nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs. Earlier this month, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer — the last remaining source of lethal injection drugs for US states — announced that it would no longer allow its products to be used for capital punishment.
Obtaining the necessary drugs for lethal injections, which have been the vastly prevalent execution method in the US for 40 years, was also made more difficult in 2012, when the European Commission imposed strict export controls to ensure they weren't being used in capital punishment, torture, or other "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Faced with the very real possibility that execution states' supply of the drugs could dry up, some have begun considering alternatives, even possibly the practice of killing people using firing squads, gas chambers, or electric chairs.
Beyond the supply issue, there are controversies around the death penalty for the young white supremacist who murdered African-Americans at a historically black church.
When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was handed a federal death sentence for the 2013 Boston bombings — which he and his brother carried out after they became radicalized through reading and listening to al-Qaeda material — some were concerned about the message it could send.
Alan Dershowitz, a prominent criminal lawyer and Harvard professor, wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian that "Seeking the death penalty against Tsarnaev, and imposing it if he were to be convicted, would turn him into a martyr."
"His face would appear on recruiting posters for suicide bombers. The countdown toward his execution might well incite other acts of terrorism. Those seeking paradise through martyrdom would see him as a role model," Dershowitz wrote.
In their seven-page opinion delivered on Tuesday, prosecutors from a United States District Court set out nine factors which they believe justify their intention to seek the death sentence for Roof. "Dylann Storm Roof has expressed hatred and contempt towards African Americans," prosecutors wrote. "[He] targeted men and women participating in a Bible-study group at the Emanuel AME Church in order to magnify the societal impact" of the murders. Finally, Roof "demonstrated a lack of remorse" for the cold-blooded killings.
Like Tsarnaev, Roof was self-radicalized, and frequented white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites. In the vitriolic manifesto published on his own website, thelastrhodesian.com, Roof paid homage to white supremacist groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Northwest Front. In December, a neo-Nazi group held a "Martyr's Day" in northwest Seattle honoring white supremacist leader Robert Matthews, who died in 1984 during a gunfight with FBI agents. Roof may become a similar figure.
Sentencing Roof to death is also controversial because it would run counter to what some of the survivors and victims' families want. Some of the victims' family members expressed their forgiveness to Roof at a bond hearing, not long after the murders.
Last September, Scarlett Wilson, the South Carolina solicitor for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, filed a court document indicating her intention to push for the death penalty. During a press conference, Wilson acknowledged that survivors of the massacre and victims' families varied in their vision of "what justice looks like" — and noted that some were entirely against the death penalty, some regarded it as "too easy", while others believed it was an appropriate punishment.
"We all agree that forgiveness can be an important part of the healing process," Wilson said. "But forgiveness does not mean forgoing consequences, even severe consequences."
Steve Schmutz, an attorney representing the families of three victims, told Reuters his clients "support whatever decision the US government is making in this case, and I'm sure they support this decision."
Kevin Singleton, whose mother Roof murdered, told the Post and Courier that seeking the death penalty sends "a great message… by the government that this won't be tolerated." A relative of another victim quoted the Bible and said Roof should spend his life in prison rather than be allowed to die.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has also said that she thinks Roof should receive a death sentence.
Roof was indicted last year by a federal grand jury last year, which delivered a 33-count indictment, including hate crimes, weapons charges and obstructing religion.
"Mother Emanuel was his destination because it was a historically African-American church of significance to the people of Charleston, of South Carolina and to the nation," Lynch said when she announced the indictment. "On that summer evening, Dylann Roof found his targets, African-Americans engaged in worship."
"The parishioners had Bibles," Lynch said. "Dylann Roof had his .45-caliber Glock pistol and eight magazines loaded with hollow-point bullets."
Defense attorneys representing Roof have previously said that he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, just 31 out of almost 800 white inmates on state and federal death row since 1976 had black victims.
Those in favor of abolishing the death penalty have consistently argued that there is a racial disparity when it comes to issuing death sentences to white or black defendants. Researchers contend that white on black crime is far less likely to produce an execution than the other way around. Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently tested this conventional wisdom in a study and found it to be overwhelmingly true.
Baumgartner told the Marshall Project that for a white defendant to be sentenced to death, their crimes generally have to be as egregious as those committed by Roof.