Death Penalty

Lawyers for alleged church-shooter Dylann Roof argue death penalty is unconstitutional

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Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof. Photo from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

Lawyers for the man accused of fatally shooting nine people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church are arguing that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Lawyers for the hate-crime suspect, Dylann Roof, make the claim in a motion (PDF) filed late Monday, the New York Times reports. The motion seeks a ruling that the federal death penalty “constitutes a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments.”

The lawyers cite a June 2015 dissent by Justice Stephen G. Breyer in which he said he believes it is “highly likely” that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Breyer’s dissent in Glossip v. Gross was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The motion also refers to an evidentiary hearing in Vermont federal court that concluded July 21. According to the motion, the hearing pointed to deficiencies in federal death penalty law, including:

• A high rate of errors leading to new trials or sentencing hearings, and sometimes exonerations.

• Regional, racial and gender disparities in which defendants receive the death penalty.

• Unavoidable delay that undermines the purpose of capital punishment.

• Abandonment of the death penalty in most states under evolving standards of decency.

The motion says Roof will withdraw the challenge and plead guilty in exchange for life in prison if the government agrees it won’t seek the death penalty.

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