Lawyers for the man who gunned down nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston last year say he shouldn’t face the death penalty because capital punishment is unconstitutional.
Dylann Roof’s lawyers filed a 34-page legal motion in Federal District Court in Charleston on Monday afternoon arguing that the death penalty is unconstitutional and should not be on the table for his case. While “the facts of this case are indisputably grave,” they write, “no one can be lawfully sentenced to death or executed under it, no matter what his crimes.”
They say that Roof has offered to plead guilty and “accept multiple sentences of life imprisonment without possibility of release.” He will plead guilty if the death sentence is withdrawn by the government.
But instead of just arguing for the removal of the death penalty in Roof’s case, his attorneys say the federal death penalty as a whole is unconstitutional. They outline a solid summary of how legal opinion across the county has shifted against the death penalty in the last few years. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have both said they believe the death penalty “likely constitutes a legally prohibited ‘cruel and unusual punishment,'” while the Connecticut Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty last year.
Just last month in Vermont, a federal judge held a nine-day evidentiary hearing on whether the federal death penalty was constitutional or not. That judge’s decision could have a bearing on what happens in Roof’s case.
The lawyers also argue that the penalty is arbitrary in how it is dispensed and specifically in how jurors who object to the death penalty are dismissed in the jury selection process.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced in May that she would seek the death penalty for Roof, saying that “the nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision.” Meanwhile, South Carolina prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty for him in a separate state case.
Federal death sentences are very rare—the only federal inmate to be sentenced to death in the last year was Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. While there are currently 62 inmates on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, only three federal inmates have been executed in the last 50 years, the latest in 2003.
The Department of Justice currently has a moratorium on executions during a review of federal death penalty policy and, the Washington Post reported last year, does not have enough lethal injection drug to execute anyone.
Here’s Roof’s full motion: