Dylann Roof's defense challenges constitutionality of death penalty

Lawyers for the South Carolina man accused of killing nine African-American worshippers in Charleston last June filed a motion Monday arguing that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional. 

Ben Earp/AP/File
Dylann Roof, who has admitted to shooting nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, is shown leaving the Shelby Police Department in Shelby, N.C., after his arrest. His lawyers are currently questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Lawyers for Dylann Roof, the South Carolina man accused of killing nine worshippers in Charleston last June, have filed a motion questioning the constitutionality of the federal death penalty after the federal government announced they would pursue it in his case. 

Mr. Roof has admitted to shooting nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and has been indicted on 33 federal charges, including federal hate crimes and firearm charges, as well as state charges. In the motion, his lawyers emphasize that they are challenging the death penalty only because the federal government has rejected his offer to plead guilty in exchange for multiple life sentences without parole.

"[T]his Court should rule that the federal death penalty constitutes a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments," Roof's lawyers wrote. 

The motion filed Monday targets both the death penalty itself and the federal death penalty law. 

"[T]he [Federal Death Penalty Act] may have been designed with as much care as possible under the circumstances, the capital sentencing process that the statute provides is constitutionally inadequate in practice," his defense team argues. "The results of jurors’ good-faith grappling with the law – arbitrary, biased, and erroneous death verdicts – are intolerable as a matter of due process and proportional punishment," wrote the lawyers.

The federal government has not exercised the death penalty since 2003, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nationwide, however, the death penalty has come under renewed criticism, particularly around questions of the drugs used in executions. In Arkansas, for example, the state's Supreme Court upheld a law that the state does not need to reveal the maker, seller, or other information about drugs used in executions, which death-row inmates argued was cruel and unusual punishment. In Virginia, religious leaders have protested the secrecy provided to companies which sell lethal injection drugs.

"Botched" executions have also appear "played a role in both a decrease in support for the death penalty among Americans, as well as a decline in its application," as The Christian Science Monitor reported in March:

In 2015, the number of prisoners executed in the United States fell to its lowest in 25 years (28) and the number of people sentenced to death dropped to its lowest point in 41 years (49), according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). So far in 2016, eight people have been executed by lethal injection, DPIC figures show.

“The low rates of executions probably have as much to do with lethal injection’s practical problems as with principled objections to the death penalty,” wrote Leah Libresco in an analysis on the data site 538 that found that half of the stays issued in 2015 were because of issues surrounding the method of execution, rather than questions about the morality of the death penalty overall.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who oppose the death penalty rose to 37 percent in 2015, the highest rate in 44 years. Six states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, most recently Nebraska in 2015. Thirty-one states still allow it. Since the European Union banned exports of drugs for the purpose of executions in 2011, death penalty states, such as Ohio, have turned to different formulations. Ohio is also one of the states facing shortages of the drugs as a result of the ban.

Roof's defense team's decision to challenge the federal death penalty follows a previous unusual tactic, a challenge to the constitutionality of the federal hate crime law. Roof's defense team says they will drop the challenge if the government stops pursuing the death penalty, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported. The Justice Department accuses Roof of targeting his victims because of their race and religion, and is using the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in prosecution. 

"To carry out these twin goals of fanning racial flames and exacting revenge, Roof further decided to seek out and murder African-Americans because of their race," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said. "An essential element of his plan, however, was to find his victims inside of a church, specifically an African-American church, to ensure the greatest notoriety and attention to his actions."

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