Court upholds death sentence for Dylann Roof in racist slayings at Black church

Convicted murderer Dylann Roof
Dylann Roof arrives at court in April 2017 to enter his guilty plea in the 2015 racist slayings of nine members of a Black church in Charleston, S.C.
(Grace Beahm / Post and Courier)

A federal appeals court Wednesday upheld Dylann Roof’s conviction and death sentence for the 2015 racist slayings of nine members of a Black South Carolina church, saying the legal record cannot “capture the full horror” of what he did.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., unanimously rejected arguments that the young white man should have been ruled incompetent to stand trial in the shootings at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

In 2017, Roof became the first person in the U.S. to be sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. Authorities have said Roof opened fire during the closing prayer of a Bible study at the church, raining dozens of bullets on those assembled. He was 21 at the time.


In his appeal, Roof’s attorneys argued that he was wrongly allowed to represent himself during sentencing, a critical phase of his trial. Roof successfully prevented jurors from hearing evidence about his mental health, “under the delusion,” his attorneys argued, that “he would be rescued from prison by white nationalists — but only, bizarrely, if he kept his mental impairments out of the public record.”

Roof’s lawyers said his convictions and death sentence should be vacated or his case should be sent back to court for a “proper competency evaluation.”

The 4th Circuit found that the trial judge did not commit an error when he found Roof competent to stand trial, and issued a scathing rebuke of Roof’s crimes.

“Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible study and worship. They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder,” the panel wrote in is ruling.

“No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did. His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose,” the judges wrote.

One of Roof’s attorneys, Margaret Alice-Anne Farrand, a deputy federal public defender, declined to comment on the ruling. Roof’s other attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


The Rev. Kylon Middleton, a close friend of Mother Emanuel Pastor Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was killed in the massacre, said Roof’s appeal reopened some of the psychological wounds felt by loved ones of the victims and survivors. Middleton said he is personally opposed to the death penalty, but had accepted that as the sentence Roof received.

Documents unsealed in federal court reveal new details about the mental health of convicted Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, including a psychiatrist’s finding that his disorders make it hard for him to focus, interact with others or express emotion.

Feb. 2, 2017

“We just want whatever the consequence or the justice that had been delivered based on the court’s ruling to be final, period,” Middleton said.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan Williams, one of the lead prosecutors on the case, said the mass shooting was one of the worst events in South Carolina’s history.

“Our office is grateful for the decision of the court, a decision that ensures, as the court stated, that ‘the harshest penalty a just society can impose’ is indeed imposed,” Williams said in a statement.

All of the regular judges of the 4th Circuit, which covers South Carolina, recused themselves from hearing Roof’s appeal because one of their own, Judge Jay Richardson, had prosecuted Roof’s case as an assistant U.S. attorney. The panel that heard arguments in May and issued Wednesday’s ruling was composed of judges from several other appellate circuits.

In stark and meticulous detail, federal prosecutors on Wednesday began to lay out their case against Dylann Roof, the self-avowed white supremacist charged with killing nine black worshipers at the historic Emanuel AME Church, describing him as “cold and calculated” as he pulled out a Glock .45-caliber pistol and fired more than 70 shots at a Bible study class.

Dec. 7, 2016

Following his federal trial, Roof was given nine consecutive life sentences after pleading guilty in 2017 to state murder charges, leaving him to await execution in a federal prison and sparing his victims and their families the burden of a second trial.

Last month, however, U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland issued a moratorium and halted all federal executions while the Justice Department conducts a review of its execution policies and procedures. The review comes after a historic run of capital punishment at the end of the Trump administration, which carried out 13 executions in six months. A federal lawsuit has also been filed over the execution protocols — including the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital, the drug used for lethal injection.

As a candidate, President Biden said he would work to end federal executions. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in March that he continues to have “grave concerns” about it.

Biden has connections to the case. As vice president, Biden attended the funeral for Pinckney. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden frequently referenced the shooting, saying that a visit to Mother Emanuel helped him heal after the death of his son Beau.

Roof’s attorneys could ask the full 4th Circuit to reconsider the panel’s ruling. If unsuccessful in his direct appeal, Roof could file what’s known as a 2255 appeal, or a request that the trial court review the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence. He could also petition the U.S. Supreme Court or seek a presidential pardon.