Dylann Roof’s appeal process could take years

Updated: May. 25, 2021 at 4:58 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Dylann Roof is attempting to appeal his federal death penalty conviction for the 2015 mass murder of nine people attending a bible study at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston.

While this may be the first of his appeals, Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says it is unlikely to be his last.

“Virtually all federal death penalty cases go through all of the normal course of appeals,” Dunham said. “The normal federal death penalty case with the appeals process is going to take upwards of 15 years.”

It could last much longer.

Meredith McPhail is a criminal defense lawyer at the Adams & Bischoff, LLC, in Charleston. She says most death row inmates will continue to make appeals until the sentence is carried out.

“What is happening now is that he is having his appellate arguments. If he loses at this this level he can ask for a rehearing. If he loses then, he can ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. If he loses again he can go back to the trial court and then the appeals court and then petition again for the Supreme Court to hear it,” McPhail said. “He is kind of at step number two of what can be six and even after that he can ask for clemency.”

However, the appeals process is not a one and done.

McPhail says there could be even more attempts to throw out the death penalty sentence and that’s because the death penalty is treated different than other punishments.

“Typically you only get one shot to raise an issue, but even after all of those steps, if there is a new change in the law or new evidence of misconduct by the prosecutor or an issue with a juror then you can raise it again with the Supreme Court,” McPhail said. “There is Supreme Court case law that says death is different.”

Even if Roof loses this appeal, Dunham says statistics are on his side.

“It is more likely than not, statistically, that the appeals process will result in a new trial or a new sentencing hearing,” Dunham said.

On top of an extensive appeal process, the cost of housing death row inmates and providing legal counsel can add up.

“The federal death penalty system costs millions of dollars more than a case where the death penalty is not sought,” Dunham said. “The main driver of the cost is the cost of defense council. The federal system requires that at least two lawyers be appointed to represent a capitally charged prisoner. One of those lawyers has to be what’s known as expert council – someone who has expertise in death penalty law.”

Roof is appealing his federal death penalty sentence. However, even if that were successfully appealed, he still faces nine consecutive sentences of life without parole for pleading guilty to murder charges in the State of South Carolina.

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