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One Step Forward, One Step Back in the Fight Against the Death Penalty

The Department of Justice announces a rare intent to pursue the death penalty as Connecticut affirms its ban against capital punishment.

By Elena Gooray


A woman weeps outside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 19, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The United States Department of Justice will pursue the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the man charged with killing nine people in a racially motivated attack last year in a South Carolina church. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced this rare federal pursuit of the death penalty Tuesday, just two days before yesterday’s ruling from the Connecticut Supreme Court to maintain its ban of the decreasingly popular policy.

The federal government’s last execution came in 2003, when Louis Jones Jr., a Persian Gulf War veteran convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of fellow soldier Tracie Joy McBride, was killed by lethal injection. Since 1988, U.S. attorneys general have authorized the government to seek the death penalty against 502 defendants, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But only 37 federal executions have been carried out since 1927.

The Roof case indicates that federal prosecutors share the country’s overall pro-death penalty stance, even as states like Connecticut maintain their bans. Support for the death penalty has declined steadily across the U.S. since 1995, especially among Democrats, the Pew Research Center reported last spring. But a majority of Americans — 56 percent, according to Pew, and 61 percent, according to Gallup polls — continue to support the sentence. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have banned the death penalty.

As Pacific Standard has previously reported, the death penalty is often sentenced along racial lines. Killers of whites are more likely to receive the death penalty than killers of African Americans. Jurors are also more likely to convict black defendants compared to white defendants if the punishment is death, although they convict both groups equally if the sentence is life without parole. All nine of Roof’s victims were black.

Roof, who also faces federal hate crime charges, will report to his first hearing in Charleston on June 7.