State wants to prosecute Charleston church shooting first

AP News
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Posted: Oct 13, 2015 8:57 PM

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina wants to go to trial before the federal government in the Charleston church shootings as it seeks the death penalty for Dylann Roof.

"That is our preference," state prosecutor Scarlett Wilson wrote in a letter late last week to U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, who is presiding over the federal case. "I appreciate any consideration you may give us in this regard."

If the state goes first, Roof is scheduled to face trial July on nine murder counts and other state charges. The 21-year-old white man is accused of killing nine black parishioners during a June 17 Bible study inside the city's historic Emanuel AME Church.

Roof also faces dozens of federal charges. Several — including weapons violations and obstructing the practice of religion, resulting in death — carry a possible death sentence, but the federal government has not said whether it will seek the death penalty.

Gergel has not set a trial date in the federal case, although it would not be until January at the earliest.

Debra Gammons, a professor at the Charleston School of Law, said it doesn't necessarily make any difference, but prosecutors prefer to go first.

Wilson "probably wants to go first to avoid any hiccup that may occur in the other trial," she said. "Something may happen in the first trial in the federal court and that could reduce her chances or reduce evidence that could be introduced in state court. It's to her advantage to go first."

"In my 20-plus years of prosecution at both the federal and state levels, I do not recall the Department of Justice actively pursuing a federal case while the state was in the midst of a prosecution," Wilson wrote. She added that the state trial judge and state Supreme Court have issued orders protecting the defense attorneys from appearing in other trials until the Roof case is resolved.

If the federal government goes first, the state case could be delayed until 2017, said Richard Harpootlian, a Columbia attorney and former prosecutor.

"The state is a little more agile getting the matter to trial ... You move quicker and you are not subject to a lot of the procedural restrictions you have in federal court," Harpootlian said. "Scarlett has done a very wise thing by putting everybody on notice that her judge and she are going to be ready in July."

Even if federal prosecutors decide quickly on the death penalty, it could take another year before they go to trial, he said.

Gergel already had delayed Roof's federal trial, which had been set to begin next month, until at least January to give attorneys more time to prepare.