Lawyers for white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof have launched a fresh challenge against his death sentence on the grounds that his victims’ “goodness and worth” were unfairly portrayed at trial.
Roof was sentenced to death in 2017 for the murder of nine Black worshippers at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
The 27-year-old stated he hoped his murderous rampage would spark a race war, and is the first person ever sentenced to death for a federal hate crime.
Last month, a three-judge panel of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Roof’s conviction and sentence, saying the legal record cannot even capture the “full horror” of what he did.
Now, Roof is trying to convince the full court to consider his appeal.
In filings on Wednesday, his legal team claimed that prosecutors’ focus on the victims’ good character meant the death sentence was improperly imposed.
“The Panel’s decision conflicts with this precedent, opening the door to death sentences based on victims’ goodness and worth,” the lawyers wrote.
“Especially troubling, it sanctions reliance on victims’ religiosity as evidence of that heightened worth.”
Roof’s legal team is relying on a Supreme Court ruling that sympathy for victims can only be admitted in limited instances in capital cases.
In its ruling last month, the 4th Circuit panel rejected every one of his arguments.
“His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose,” the panel wrote.
It also affirmed a district judge’s finding that Roof was mentally fit to stand trial.
If the petition is not granted, his only remaining option would be to appeal before the US Supreme Court.
Roof was charged with 33 counts of hate crimes and nine counts of murder for the attack he perpetrated on 17 June 2015, when he walked into church and opened fire on the small gathering of 12 – including a child, a preacher, a minister, eight women and one young man.
He killed nine of them as they prayed after the group had welcomed him to join them in the church basement – opening fire with a gun he purchased after lying about previous drug convictions.
The victims’ names were Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Sharonda Singleton; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.; DePayne Doctor and State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the church pastor.
Roof then fled the church and sparked an interstate manhunt before being apprehended the next day in North Carolina during a traffic stop.
Two of the survivors testified at his trial, with one calling him “pure evil”. Another member of the church called him a “subhuman miscreant”.