Why Did Dylann Roof Plead Not Guilty? It's All About The Death Penalty

On June 17, 2015, one of the worst mass shootings in recent memory took place at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., a grisly attack which left nine people dead. The alleged gunman, Dylann Roof, has been charged with nine counts of murder, as well as a slew of federal hate crime charges, claiming he targeted the historically black church because of virulent anti-black racism. So why did Dylann Roof plead not guilty on Friday?

Obviously, under the American judicial system, people are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Roof is currently an alleged murderer, and that qualifier will remain until the very moment a jury rules otherwise. But on the strength of the crimes and the evidence against him, it's hard not to see where this is probably going. Simply put, Roof is extremely likely to be convicted, in the mold of other recent mass killers like Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Colorado theater shooter James Holmes. So why go with not guilty?

Well, we're in luck, because Roof's attorneys answered that question when they entered the plea: Roof actually wants to plead guilty, but they don't want do so until they know whether the government will seek the death penalty.

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In other words, Roof's attorneys are clearly gearing up for this to be a trial in the Holmes/Tsarnaev mode — namely, one that's all about avoiding a capital sentence, rather than pushing for Roof's innocence. It's a sensible legal route to take in a case like this, because frankly, it'd be nigh impossible to convince a jury Roof didn't kill those people, considering his prior confession and multiple eyewitnesses. Moreover, racist online screeds apparently written by Roof will likely make the federal hate crime charges against him a pretty easy lift.

Roof's lead attorney, David Bruck, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant, according to NBC News, "Mr. Roof has told us he would like to plead guilty. Until we know whether the government is seeking a death penalty, we will not be able to enter a plea of guilty at this time."

It's unclear at this juncture whether the death penalty will be sought, although the severity of the crime — nine black parishoners slain during a Bible study — would seem to make him as prime a target as any. It's been very much in the political conversation, as well, with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley commenting after Roof's arrest that "we absolutely will want him to have the death penalty."

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