Attorneys for Dylann Roof, the white man charged with killing nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church, want a federal judge to rule the death penalty unconstitutional and allow their client to plead guilty and serve life in prison.
Lawyers for 22-year-old Dylan Roof filed the motion on Monday saying a flawed process of sitting juries willing to recommend the death penalty violates the rights of both potential jurors and defendants.
The government is seeking the death penalty against Roof who is charged with hate crimes and other counts in the June 2015 shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Prosecutors allege Roof posed with the Confederate battle flag before the killings and talked of starting a race war.
His federal trial is set for November. He also faces the death penalty in state court where he is charged with murder in a trial set to begin early next year.
In the filing, Assistant Federal Public Defender Sarah Gannett said while some aspects of jury selection in death penalty cases have been considered by the courts, other issues she puts forward are being raised for the first time.
While the law provides that all citizens have an opportunity to sit on juries, juries willing to impose a death penalty don't represent a cross-section of the community, the filing said.
Gannett said such juries are more likely to be white, older, predominantly Protestant and less educated than the rest of society while women and minorities tend to be excluded.
She also noted that excluding jurors who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons violates constitutional protections against requiring religious tests for holding office or having positions of public trust.
"If a proposed juror is Catholic, Quaker or any sect of any other religion and adamantly opposed to the death penalty, death qualification discriminates against that juror's religion," she said.
Both Roof's state and federal attorneys have said he is willing to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.
Gannett said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel should allow the federal case to proceed as a non-capital case.
Then Roof could plead guilty and "would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release and this prosecution would conclude," she wrote.