Lawyers representing Dylann Roof, the white man accused of killing nine black members of a historic Charleston, S.C., church last year, filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty after federal prosecutors declined his offer to serve life without parole.
In the 34-page motion filed late Monday in Federal District Court in Charleston, Mr. Roof’s lawyers acknowledged that “the facts of this case are indisputably grave.” But they argued that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, and that therefore “no one can be lawfully sentenced to death or executed under it, no matter what his crimes.”
The challenge to the system stemmed from the government’s refusal to accept guilty pleas from Mr. Roof in exchange for multiple sentences of life in prison without a possibility of parole, the filing said.
“Should the government’s death notice be withdrawn at any point in the future,” the filing said, “Mr. Roof will withdraw this motion and plead guilty as charged to all counts in the indictment.”
The defense team — which includes David Bruck, a nationally renowned death penalty lawyer — drew on academic research and earlier court cases to argue that the death penalty is unreliable, excessive and undermined by lengthy delays.
The lawyers, who declined a request for comment, cited a dissenting opinion in a landmark death penalty case in the United States Supreme Court last year. The 5-to-4 decision upheld the use of lethal injection drugs, turning aside claims by three death row inmates that the drugs caused unconstitutional suffering. But in the 46-page dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said it was time to reconsider whether capital punishment was constitutional.
Justice Breyer wrote that “it is highly likely” that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishments, and said there was evidence suggesting that innocent people had been executed.
Legal scholars said the Roof filing was notable for the high-powered defense team behind it, as well as its timing a year after the dissent by Justices Breyer and Ginsburg in the death penalty case, Glossip v. Gross.
Mr. Bruck, one of three lawyers who signed Mr. Roof’s filing on Monday, has played a role in hundreds of death penalty cases and argued seven of them before the Supreme Court. He helped defend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bomber trial.
Whether a challenge like Mr. Roof’s could prevail in front of the Supreme Court, should it rise there on appeal, is a subject of intense speculation.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Mike McPhate