Attorneys for Dylann Roof are challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty in their ongoing effort to save the accused shooter from the possibility of execution.
In a motion filed this week in federal court, the defense team for the man charged with last year’s attack at Emanuel AME Church acknowledged that the facts of this case are “indisputably grave,” but argue that the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) is unconstitutional, and “no one can be lawfully sentenced to death or executed under it, no matter what his crimes.” The defense states that Roof has confessed and offered to accept multiple life sentences without the possibility of release if federal prosecutors withdraw their decision to seek the death penalty.
Chief among the defense’s arguments is that the death penalty qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment and violates their client’s right to a fair trial. In 1972, following a landmark Supreme Court decision, the death penalty was effectively suspended in the United States with justices ruling on the arbitrary nature in which these punishments were handed down. This suspension on executions lasted until 1976 when several states introduced reforms aimed at improving the system by which the death penalty was imposed. Since that time, there have been more than 1,400 executions carried out in the United States.
Pointing to a potential bias in jury selection, Roof’s attorneys claim that the selection process for capital cases violates a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury due to what is referred to as the “death qualification.” Since potential jurors in capital cases must be willing to consider sentencing a person to death, those who outright oppose the death penalty in all cases are excluded from the jury. The defense in Roof’s case say that this qualification results in a jury that is not drawn from a fair cross-section of the community and violates potential jurors’ rights to exercise their religion.
In recent court documents, the defense states, “Thus, that a juror may view human life as sacred and thus be inclined to believe that a defendant’s existence as a human being, in and of itself, is a decisive mitigating factor, cannot be considered basis for disqualification under the federal death statute.”
Continuing their argument against the possible execution of Roof, his attorneys claim that prosecutors have supplanted a decision by Congress not to authorize the death sentence for federal hate crimes, of which he is accused. Attempts to include a maximum penalty of death in the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act failed before it was passed in 2009. Roof’s attorneys argue that the prosecutors’ notice to seek the death penalty should be stricken from at least nine of the 33 counts Roof faces due to those charges stemming from alleged hate crime violations.
“The court should declare the FDPA unconstitutional and order that this case proceed as a non-capital case,” the defense concludes in their most recent motion. “Such a ruling would permit the defendant to enter his guilty plea and proceed to a sentencing hearing at which — after the court had heard from any survivors or victim family members who might wish to speak — he would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release, and this prosecution would conclude.”
Roof’s federal trial is set to begin Nov. 7.