CHARLESTON, S.C. — The laborious process of jury selection is getting underway in the federal death penalty trial of Dylann Roof, the white man charged in the deaths of nine black parishioners gunned down during a Bible study at a Charleston church.
The 22-year-old Roof is charged with hate crimes, obstruction of religion and other counts in the June 17, 2015 shootings at Emanuel AME Church. Prosecutors allege he talked of starting a race war, posed with the Confederate battle flag before the killings and used the internet to scope out Emanuel and other historically black churches.
The first of hundreds of potential jurors report to the courthouse in Charleston’s historic district on Monday. Testimony in the case being heard by U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel is not anticipated until after Thanksgiving.
In the trial last year of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, jury selection took about two months with weather and other delays. The guilt and sentencing phases took almost nine weeks.
Like the Tsarnaev trial, the Roof trial will be in two phases: a first to decide guilt or innocence and, if he is convicted, a second to determine if he should be sentenced to life in prison or death.
Roof’s attorneys have said repeatedly their client is willing to plead guilty if the death penalty is taken off the table. But U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said the government is seeking death because of “the nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm.”
Miller Shealy, an attorney who teaches criminal law at Charleston School of Law, said the challenge for the defense is finding a jury that will keep Roof out of the death chamber.
“You’re trying to apply a little common sense and the best social science and psychology you can get to determine how you can pick a jury that is as non-lethal as possible,” he said. “The government is trying to pick a jury that actually will give the death penalty based on the facts and the circumstances.”
Three thousand potential jurors from the Charleston area were summoned over the summer and asked to fill out a standard questionnaire about education, employment and the like. When jurors report Monday they will be sworn in, introduced to the defendant and attorneys and then the court will hear from any who want to be excused.
Reasons for being excused include being over 70, having served on a federal jury in the past two years, having no one else to care for young children, serving as a volunteer with a public safety agency or having a business that would fold if the juror served.
Those not excused will then fill out a second questionnaire asking specifically about the Roof case, a questionnaire the judge has sealed.
Once a pool of 700 jurors has filled out the questionnaires they will return Nov. 7 to be individually questioned by the judge.
Once that process produces 70 qualified jurors they will be presented to attorneys who can use strikes to dismiss those they don’t want. Twelve jurors and six alternates will be seated.