COLUMBIA, S.C. — Convicted South Carolina church shooter Dylann Roof is set to plead guilty to state murder charges, avoiding a second death sentence and effectively bringing to a close the prosecutions against him for the 2015 slaughter.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson told The Associated Press on Friday that Roof is scheduled to enter a guilty plea during a hearing on April 10 in Charleston. The plea on all of his state charges, including nine counts of murder, comes in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, the prosecutor said.
Roof, 22, has been awaiting trial on state murder charges for the deaths of nine black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. Authorities said Roof spent months planning his attack on the historic black church, driving by the church and calling to check on service times. Roof sat through an hour of Bible study one Wednesday night before opening fire during a prayer, when participants' eyes were closed, authorities said.
The deal won't save Roof from a possible execution. Earlier this year, a federal jury sentenced him to death on charges including hate crimes and obstruction of the practice of religion. Roof's federal defence team had signalled a willingness to plead guilty ahead of that trial, if the death penalty were off the table, but federal prosecutors refused to drop their pursuit.
Roof ultimately fired his defence team for the sentencing phase of his federal trial and represented himself. The self-avowed white supremacist called no witnesses, never asked for forgiveness or mercy or explained the massacre and told jurors in his closing argument, "I still feel like I had to do it."
The state plea will mark the end of the trial proceedings against Roof, who has been in custody ever since his arrest the day after the shootings. Aside from trips to and from court, he's been housed in the Charleston County jail, about 13 miles (21 km) north of the church where the slayings took place.
After his federal sentencing, Roof was returned to that jail instead of federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, since his state trial was expected to come this year. Now, if this deal goes through, authorities can transfer him to serve his sentence and await the results of the years of appeals that will surely ensue. Roof has already filed for a new federal trial, arguing that federal prosecutors didn't have jurisdiction to bring their case against him.
Roof's state defence team didn't immediately return a phone message seeking comment on the plea deal. Andy Savage, who represents some victims' families and two survivors of the shooting, said in an email to AP that he had spoken to some of his clients, who were pleased with the news.
"'Praise God' was the response of Felicia Sanders," Savage said of the woman who lost her son and aunt in the shootings. "Others were likewise relieved that there will be no trial and that Dylann Roof will be segregated from society for the remainder of his life."
Savage also shared an email he had written to the state judge overseeing Roof's case, noting that sending Roof to a federal institution "is the preference of all victims that I represent."
Wilson also had sought the death penalty in state court. Talking with the AP on Friday, she said she was confident the federal case against Roof would be upheld.
"I think it is highly unlikely that anything will be disturbed on appeal in federal court," she said. Roof's plea deal with the state to spend life in prison "just gives an insurance policy against that."
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/
Meg Kinnard, The Associated Press