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Dylann Roof Wants The Jury Reminded They Are Never Required To Impose The Death Penalty

Lawyers for the accused Charleston shooter responded to the prosecutors motion to limit his use of a "mercy" defense at trial.

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Randall Hill / Reuters

Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old man charged with murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston last month, listens to the proceedings at a July hearing


Dylann Roof’s defense attorney responded this week to the prosecution’s request that the court limit the accused Charleston church shooter’s use of a “mercy” defense when he goes on trial for the killing of nine people on June 17, 2015 inside the Emanuel AME church.

The main point being debated by each side in the case is whether or not it is appropriate for the judge to instruct the jury that each juror is by law never required to impose a sentence of death in any case. The prosecution’s position is that mercy may enter into the debate over Roof’s sentence as a possible mitigating factor to be discussed during the sentencing phase of the trial, should Roof be convicted, but not before.

Roof’s attorneys write that in their motion the government “conflates two distinct concepts in federal capital jury instruction.”

“[F]irst, that the [Federal Death Penalty Act], by its terms, never requires a jury to impose a death sentence prior to discretionary finding that any aggravating factors sufficiently outweigh the mitigating factors,” Roof’s attorneys write. “[A]nd second, the separate argument that, following the weighing process and a finding that the death penalty is justified, jurors should be permitted to exercise mercy and impose a sentence of life without the possibility of release.”

Roof’s attorneys add that the jurors need to be instructed on this point that a death sentence is never required of them in order to avoid confusion or an assumption that “the law will have determined in advance what crimes and offenders are to be punished by death.”

“This persistent and widespread confusion should not come as a complete surprise,” the attorneys write. “Few jurors — or judges, for that matter — will be glad to learn that the life of a fellow human being has been consigned to their discretionary moral judgement. Faced with this prospect, it is simpler to believe — even if it is not true — that the law itself provides the answer to the momentous question of life and death.”

Earlier this week, the federal judge in the case ordered that jury selection will begin on Sept. 26 with 3,000 prospective jurors asked to appear at the district courthouse in Charleston. Phase one of jury selection will involve filling out a questionnaire that will include a list of possible witnesses — prospective jurors who know these witnesses will be excused. The questioning of individuals jurors has been tentatively scheduled for Nov. 7.

Roof’s attorneys write that they intend to include an instruction to jurors stating that they are not required to impose the death penalty in any case when they submit their proposed jury instructions on Oct. 11.

Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mike Hayes at mike@buzzfeed.com.

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