CHARLESTON, S.C. — Jury selection in the trial of a white man accused of killing nine African-Americans begins Monday in Charleston, once again putting South Carolina and race relations in the South in a national spotlight.
But in the case of Dylann Roof, rendering judgment likely will be an intensely local process.
Roof, 22, has been federally indicted on 33 counts related to nine murders in the June 2015 killings, some of those charges drawing on hate crime laws. Authorities say he walked into a Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and opened fire.
With the shootings, Roof intended to boost racial tensions, according to federal officials. Instead, the shooting left the nation aghast that worshippers were slaughtered in a house of God and touched off questions about “lone wolf” shooters, race relations and the nature of forgiveness.
South Carolina lawmakers answered by ridding its statehouse grounds of the Confederate flag.
Summonses were initially issued to 3,000 prospective jurors, with that initial pool now narrowed to 512 Charleston-area residents. A panel of 12 drawn from that number will answer the question of guilt, and afterward, a question of life or death.
Winnowing down the final Roof jury pool could take at least two weeks and the process is often filled with choices that are counterintuitive, say trial experts.
Amid high-profile cases, lawyers sometimes seek a new venue, arguing that media overexposure and local opinion prevent a fair trial, but Roof’s defense team argued over the summer that an impartial jury could be found in the nine-county federal district in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel agreed with the defense, a decision that means many prospective panelists will likely be drawn from Charleston and cities nearby.
“As you go to more rural areas in South Carolina, you would expect them to be more receptive to the death penalty,” said Jeffrey Frederick, director of Jury Research Services Division in Virginia. “In urban areas, and among African-Americans, there’s generally a less favorable view of the death penalty.
“Yes, they were a population that bore a racist attack, however the defense may still feel they have arguments to be made that would be better received by people leaning against the death penalty to begin with.”
Hate and forgiveness
Parishioners at the historically black Mother Emanuel welcomed Roof when he appeared for the Wednesday night Bible study. Unknown to them, he carried a Glock pistol and eight magazines, each loaded with hollow-point bullets.
But from a wounded Charleston in the shootings’ aftermath also came an extraordinary olive branch, one that mesmerized a nation.
Within 48 hours of the attack, as Roof appeared for a bond hearing, the voices of several family members of the victims rose above condemnations calling the shootings a hate crime.
Watching Roof on a closed-circuit television that piped him into a courtroom, Nadine Collier addressed him in a tearful, aching plea.
“I forgive you. You took something very precious from me,” she said of her 70-year-old mother, Ethel Lance. “I will never talk to her again, but I forgive you, have mercy on your soul.”
That moment might well have also factored into a defense decision to leave Roof’s fate to Charleston, Frederick said.
“They are not going to go in there and justify the crime. They can’t,” he said. “They are going to have to tap into something bigger. That could be community healing, and community healing without violence.”
Roof in August had sought to avoid execution by offering to plead guilty and accepting a sentence that would ensure he would never leave prison. That bid was rejected by prosecutors.
The politics of the Charleston area also likely weighed into the defense decision to keep the trial local, said Bernard Powers, history professor at the College of Charleston.
The city is a stalwart blue island in a state that has voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 13 of the last 14 elections, with only fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter making Democratic inroads.
Powers, a member of a nearby AME church and one of a trio who authored, We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, said some residents believe it is right and proper that the venue and jurors are local, he said. Others fear an opening of wounds that are trying to heal, particularly as nightmarish details of that night are made public in court.
Like many, Powers marveled at family members who extended forgiveness, but that gesture does not define the whole city, even if the narrative of a merciful Charleston makes for a wrenching and beautiful story.
“You’re talking about a small group of people and unrepresentative in their goodness,” Powers said. “Now, that doesn’t take anything away from Charlestonians. You can’t generalize, as some people have done, from the families who have extended forgiveness to the whole community.”
Judging the jury
Neither side will say if they hired jury consultants, but in an era of social media, those experts would also tap into more personal details of panelists.
The last tally of race and gender of the jury pool, when it stood at 747 people, indicates about 75 percent of prospects are white and 21 percent are black, numbers that over-represent the former group and under-represent the latter in the federal district.
The pool at that count held 43 more women than men, though the gender of 74 people is listed as unknown.
From that group, a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates will be chosen, with prosecutors and defense attorneys each allowed 23 peremptory strikes. Court officials note that process can move unexpectedly fast or slow, and with that caveat, believe a final jury could be selected in about two weeks.
Attorneys in some cases turn to consultants who study possible venues and focus groups to test and refine the reception of their arguments, and as they begin seating individual jurors in a process known as voir dire, all publicly available information is considered fair game.
That might include everything from criminal records to political party affiliation to a dearth of information available on individual social media accounts, as well as posts made to public message boards.
Roof’s lead defense attorney is David Bruck, a legendary lawyer who practiced criminal law in South Carolina for 28 years, and is now director of Virginia’s Capital Case Clearinghouse. He stepped into the national spotlight with the 1995 trial of Susan Smith, then a young mother convicted of driving her two young sons into a lake, leaving them to drown.
The case drew national attention when Smith claimed for more than a week that a black man had abducted the boys before confessing that she was responsible. Bruck, in a careful gamble on jury and venue, opted to defend his client in the rural Palmetto State county where she was born and her sons died.
Before those jurors, he won a life without parole sentence for Smith, who also faced a possible death penalty.
That the attack happened in an African-American church and Charleston’s response is no small consideration as Roof faces the death penalty, said Ken Gaines, law professor at the University of South Carolina.
“Where there is a strong religious black community, the notion of forgiveness is taken seriously to let a higher power deal with it, rather than people. Down there in the Lowcountry, it would be something that would be a strong principle,” Gaines said. “He’s looking for mercy from the very people he was perpetrating his crime against. Isn’t that odd? That may be his best hope not to get lethal injection.”