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Defendant in South Carolina church shootings faces November federal trial

By Bruce Smith Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C. – The federal death penalty trial of a white man charged with shooting and killing nine black parishioners during a Bible study at their Charleston church will be held in November, a judge announced Tuesday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel set Nov. 7 to begin selecting jurors for the federal trial of Dylann Roof, 22, who faces numerous counts, including hate crimes, in the June 17 shootings at Emanuel AME Church.

That’s about two months before Roof’s state death-penalty trial. Roof faces nine counts of murder in state court in a trial set to begin in January.

Handcuffed and clad in a gray-striped prison jumpsuit, Roof attended Tuesday’s hearing but did not address the court.

But his attorneys reiterated previous comments that he would be willing to plead guilty if the death penalty were not on the table.

“Our plea offer has not been withdrawn and will never be withdrawn,” defense attorney David Bruck told the judge.

Setting a date for Roof’s federal trial had been delayed a number of times since last year as the Justice Department weighed whether to seek the death penalty.

The decision was announced last month by Attorney General Loretta Lynch who said she was compelled by “the nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm.”

On Tuesday, under questioning from the judge, both defense attorneys and federal prosecutors told Gergel they could complete their investigations, do the necessary legal research and be prepared to try their cases by November. They said they expected the trial could take as long as six weeks.

Gergel said that between 1,200 and 1,500 potential jurors might be summoned from throughout the state.

Most of the 75-minute hearing concerned setting deadlines for filing pretrial motions and other scheduling matters.

The church shootings, which occurred a year ago next week, reignited discussions about race relations and led to the removal of a Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse. Roof had previously posed for photos with a rebel flag.

Due in part to problems in obtaining lethal injection drugs, no one has been executed in South Carolina since 2011. The federal government hasn’t put anyone to death since 2003.

Roof was originally to go on trial in state court this July. But the case was delayed after the defense said doctors needed more time to complete psychiatric testing of Roof.

Last year, with the July trial date set, state prosecutor Scarlett Wilson had written Gergel saying the state preferred to prosecute Roof first.

She said after Tuesday’s hearing the most important concern justice for the victims’ families.

“The notion that we are arm-wrestling or arguing with the federal prosecutors – our federal counterparts – is just not there,” she said. “The most important thing is bringing justice to these families and trying this case as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

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