CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday delayed the trial for a white man accused of shooting nine black people at a Charleston church earlier this year.
Jury selection in the case of Dylann Roof had been set to begin next month. But U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel agreed to push the trial back until at least January after both defense attorneys and federal prosecutors said they needed more time to prepare.
Roof, 21, faces dozens of federal charges, including hate crimes, stemming from the June 17 shootings at Emanuel AME Church.
Roof's attorneys have said he would like to plead guilty but need to know first if the government will seek the death penalty against him.
On Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said the U.S. Justice Department is still reviewing the matter.
"It is an absolute priority for the department and is not something on the back burner by any stretch of the imagination," he told the judge. He said that U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch will ultimately decide if the government will pursue a death sentence.
Gergel urged the prosecutor to let officials at the Justice Department know that it's important to get a decision. He said he realized such a review can take some time but "I want it to be done as soon as possible."
Roof did not attend the meeting. In court documents he waived his right to appear and also waived his right to a speedy trial. Under federal law, a trial must be held within 70 days of a defendant's indictment.
Defense attorney David Bruck told the judge that "we understand and our client accepts that it's going to take a lot of time to get our arms around this case."
He said the defense only received the main evidence in the government's case about two weeks ago and needed time to review the material. "In two months we will have a better sense of where this case is going," he said.
When Roof was arraigned in federal court on 33 charges in late July, Bruck said his client wanted to plead guilty but that he could not counsel him to do so without knowing the government's intentions on the death penalty.
Roof faces additional counts in state court, including nine murder charges.
State prosecutor Scarlett Wilson announced last month that while not all the families of the victims want her to seek the death penalty, the state will argue that Roof be put to death if he is convicted in a state trial set for next July.