Charleston mass shooting victims can sue U.S. over gun purchase: court

FILE PHOTO: Dylann Roof sits in the court room at the Charleston County Judicial Center to enter his guilty plea on murder charges in state court for the 2015 shooting massacre at a historic black church, in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Grace Beahm/Pool/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Survivors of a 2015 mass shooting at a South Carolina church can sue the U.S. government over its alleged negligence in allowing Dylann Roof to buy the gun he used to kill nine African-Americans, a federal appeals court said on Friday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the government was not immune from liability under either the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) or the Brady Act to prevent handgun violence.

Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel revived 16 lawsuits that challenged lapses in how the government vetted prospective gun purchasers, including the FBI’s management of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

William Wilkins, a former chief judge of the 4th Circuit representing the victims, said Congress had charged the FBI with adopting procedures “to stop people like Roof who could obtain assassins’ weapons” from doing so.

“The government has to do what the law requires,” Wilkins said in an interview. “It failed to do that in this case.”

Roof, a white supremacist, had been admitted to a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, where he then used his .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol in the shooting.

Victims said a proper background check would have shown that Roof had recently admitted to drug possession, which would have disqualified him from buying the gun from a federally licensed dealer two months earlier.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court that no one disputed that a proper check would have stopped Roof.

But he said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston was wrong to dismiss the lawsuits on immunity grounds in June 2018, even as Gergel faulted the government’s “abysmally poor policy choices” in managing the background check system.

Gregory said the case turned on the NICS examiner’s alleged negligence in disregarding mandatory procedures. “The government can claim no immunity in these circumstances,” he wrote.

Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee partially dissented, saying the government was not immune from Brady Act claims, but that Gergel properly dismissed the FTCA case.

Roof, now 25, was sentenced to death in January 2017 after being convicted on 33 federal counts related to the shooting, including hate crimes. He pleaded guilty three months later to state murder charges, and was sentenced to nine consecutive life terms without parole.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)

Jury condemns Dylann Roof to death for South Carolina church massacre

family members of the victims of the Charleston massacre waiting outside courthouse

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – White supremacist Dylann Roof deserves to die for the hate-fueled killings of nine black churchgoers at a Bible study meeting in a Charleston, South Carolina, a U.S. jury said on Tuesday after deliberating for less than three hours.

The same jury last month found Roof, 22, guilty of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes resulting in death, for the shocking mass shooting at the landmark Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015.

Roof, who represented himself and did not argue against the death penalty, showed no emotion as the verdict was read.

Prosecutors said he planned the shooting for months, intending to incite racial violence by targeting the oldest African-American congregation in the U.S. South.

“He decided the day, the hour and the moment that my sister was going to die, and now someone is going to do the same for him,” Melvin Graham, brother of shooting victim Cynthia Hurd, 54, said outside the federal courthouse in the heart of historic Charleston’s downtown district.

Roof will be formally sentenced on Wednesday. He also faces the death penalty if convicted of murder charges in a pending state trial.

Whether he was competent to serve as his own attorney will be a fundamental issue in the appeals process, Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said in a telephone interview.

Roof did not present any evidence during the penalty phase that began last week or allow jurors to hear details about his mental health. Dunham said defense lawyers likely will use the trial to show appellate judges that mental illness prevented him from adequately representing himself.

“We are sorry that, despite our best efforts, the legal proceedings have shed so little light on the reasons for this tragedy,” Roof’s lawyers, who represented him for the guilt phase, said in a statement.

Roof was unrepentant during his short closing argument, telling jurors he still felt the massacre was something he had to do.

“Anyone who hates anything has good reason for it,” he said. “I have a right to ask you to give me a life sentence, but I’m not sure what good that will do anyone.”

On June 17, 2015, Roof sat for 40 minutes with parishioners gathered for a Bible study meeting before opening fire as they closed their eyes to pray, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said in his final statement to jurors.

Roof pulled the trigger 75 times as he methodically killed Hurd; Clementa Pinckney, 41, the church’s pastor and a state senator; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Myra Thompson, 59; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; and Tywanza Sanders, 26.

Jurors heard four days of heartrending testimony from more than 20 of the victims’ loved ones, who described their legacies of faith and the devastation wrought by Roof’s brutality.

“What’s wrong here is the calculated racism, the choice to target a church, particularly the people in a church,” Richardson told jurors. “What’s wrong here is precisely why this is a case that justifies the death penalty.”

(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein and Jon Herskovitz; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Alan Crosby and Jonathan Oatis)

Judge closes hearing on South Carolina church gunman’s competency

South Carolina church massacre shooting suspect Dylann Roof is seen in U.S. District Court of South Carolina evidence photo which was originally taken from Roof's website. Courtesy U.S. District Court of South Carolina

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – A judge on Monday barred the public and press from a hearing to determine if Dylann Roof is mentally fit to serve as his own lawyer in the penalty phase of his trial, when the jury will decide whether to give him the death penalty for the 2015 massacre at a South Carolina church.Roof, 22, an avowed white supremacist, shot dead nine people at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The same jury found Roof guilty last month of 33 counts of federal hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations.

The jury will be seated again to determine whether to put Roof to death but first the judge must decide whether Roof can serve as his own attorney or whether he will be represented by court-appointed lawyers.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, whose decision was expected on Monday, said he was keeping the proceedings closed in order to avoid sequestering the jury.

Gergel said he was concerned jurors would inadvertently hear potentially prejudicial information from the hearing if reporters were allowed to cover it, ruling that protecting Roof’s right to a fair trial outweighed the media’s right to view the hearing.

The judge rejected arguments from press attorney Jay Bender and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson, who wanted an open hearing. Gergel also banned relatives of the victims from attending.

The judge previously found Roof competent to stand trial after a hearing held in November ahead of the guilt phase but on Monday was due to hear new testimony from forensic psychiatrist James Ballenger, who examined Roof for five hours over the weekend, Gergel said.

Roof’s standby lawyers filed a motion arguing that Roof was not competent to stand trial or represent himself after he revealed at a hearing last week that he would present no evidence or witnesses during the sentencing phase.

His announcement raised “in especially stark fashion the question of whether the defendant is actually unable to defend himself,” the lawyers said in a court filing.

A team led by prominent capital defense lawyer David Bruck represented Roof during the guilt phase of the trial.

Roof has opted to represent himself for the sentencing phase, due to begin on Tuesday, and has sought to keep jurors from hearing evidence about his competency and mental health.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrea Ricci)