Dylann Roof trial: Jury selection in a death penalty case

Prosecutors and the defense begin selecting 12 jurors out of a potential pool of 512 on Monday. Those seated will decide whether Dylann Roof's alleged hate crimes warrant punishment by the death penalty or life in prison.

Jason Miczek/Reuters
Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, N.C., following his arrest there in June of 2015.

The trial against accused Charleston, S.C., shooter Dylann Roof enters the final phase Monday as prosecutors and his defense seek to narrow a few hundred potential jurors down to 12 in the death penalty case.

Mr. Roof is charged with the fatally shooting nine people at a black church last summer and wounding three others. The 22-year-old had offered to plead guilty to the list of charges against him if prosecutors agreed to forego the death penalty in his case. That agreement could have spared the city from a lengthy and expensive trial many say will reopen wounds in the community and across the country where racial tension remains high. Federal prosecutors refused to cut a deal with the alleged shooter, however, saying that the heinous nature of the crimes and Roof's professed desire to start a race war warrant the highest penalty.

The federal trial is the first Roof will face and focuses on the accusation that he committed hate crimes of both racial and religious natures. The second, a state trial, is slated to begin next year, during which he will face murder charges. Both make him eligible for the death penalty.

Due to the overwhelming evidence against Roof, including his own near-admissions of guilt, the trial will likely focus less on whether or not he carried out the crimes, and instead on whether actions merit the use of capital punishment. His defense team has acknowledged that ghd evidence Roof carried out the shooting is “indisputably grave,” but asserts that the federal death penalty act constitutes a form of cruel and unusual punishment that no defendant should face, The Wall Street Journal Reports.

The argument is hardly the first of its kind in a high-profile case. Last year, Roof’s attorney and death penalty opponent David Bruck used the same tactic to defend Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Instead of trying to convince a jury that Mr. Tsarnaev was not involved in the April 2013 bombings that killed three and seriously wounded dozens of others, his defense argued that a jury should sentence him to life in a high-security federal prison rather than impose the death penalty on him.

“A sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release allows for hope,” Judy Clarke, one of his lawyers, said in her closing arguments. “Mercy’s never earned; it’s bestowed. And the law allows you to choose justice and mercy.”

That jury, comprised of Massachusetts residents whose state abolished the capital punishment in 1984, found Tsarnaev guilty and sentenced him to death.

While some victims sought comfort and closure in the sentencing, others have said the inevitable appeals process of the penalty will continue to dredge up the traumatic events.

After summoning more than 3,000 people for jury duty in the Roof trial, attorneys in the case have narrowed that number to 512, CNN reports. On Monday, they begin reviewing the prospective jurors in groups of 10 and will spend the next few weeks slimming that number to the necessary 12 jurors and six alternates.

Unlike Massachusetts, South Carolina has the death penalty on the books and has executed more than 40 people in the last 30 years. Local civil rights leader Rev. Joseph A. Darby says the community feels “somewhere between tense, hopeful and complacent,” according to The Wall Street Journal.  

And while many say they feel somewhat ambivalent toward the use of capital punishment, they say Roof’s crimes would likely be a case to warrant its use.

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