COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Less than five months before the federal government's death penalty trial of accused Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, South Carolina's top federal prosecutor announced his immediate departure from the office Wednesday, saying he is returning to private law practice.
During an interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said he had long planned to leave the post, to which he was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010. Nettles said his six-year tenure made him South Carolina's longest-serving U.S. Attorney since the 1960s.
With the election in November, whoever becomes president will make his or her own selections for U.S. Attorneys across the country.
Nettles, 54, opposes the death penalty and spent much of his more than 20-year private practice career on criminal defense, at times fighting to keep defendants off death row. When he took office, Nettles told The Associated Press he would "follow the law as it's dictated by Washington," even in potential death penalty cases.
"My opinions don't matter when I work for the Department of Justice," Nettles told the AP on Wednesday, pointing out that he could put personal opinions aside while serving as a prosecutor. He called himself an "unlikely choice" for the office in the first place, in part because of that stance, as well as the fact he had never worked as a prosecutor prior to his appointment.
Asked about the Charleston case and his personal convictions, Nettles said that he had spent hours in conversation with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as she contemplated whether the federal government would seek the death penalty against Roof. The 22-year-old faces federal hate crime and other charges for the shooting deaths of nine members of Emanuel AME Church last June during Wednesday night Bible study.
"I am deeply grateful to the attorney general," Nettles said of Lynch's willingness to hear his point of view on how to handle the case. "It wasn't lip service. ... She has been very receptive to letting me speak my mind."
Roof's federal trial has been set to begin in November. He also faces a possible death sentence in state court if convicted in a trial scheduled for January.
During his six years in office, Nettles says he's proud of expanding South Carolina's federal prosecutions of white collar and public corruption cases. When he came in, Nettles says such cases were less than 25 percent of the office's work. Now, they represent more than half.
Nettles said he's also proud to have worked on ways to find alternate ways to handle cases, like sending low-level drug cases to state court and trying to figure out if addiction might be at the root of a defendant's problems, and if so, to find help.
"I never viewed my job as putting people in jail," he said. "My job was to make South Carolina a better, safer place."
With Nettles' departure, federal prosecutor Beth Drake will serve as acting U.S. Attorney until a new choice is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. At his own firm, Nettles said he will take a variety of cases and also will pursue setting up a mediation practice for false claims cases against the federal government, an area on which he's proud to have focused as a prosecutor.
"I'm going to be a lawyer," Nettles said with a smile. "I'm going to be an advocate for my client, whoever my client may be. ... I enjoy advocacy, and I enjoy the fight."
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/