The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has affirmed Dylann Roof’s federal-court convictions and death sentences for the racially motivated murders of nine parishioners in an historic Charleston, South Carolina African-American church in 2017.

In a 149-page decision issued on August 25, 2021 by a special panel of judges assembled from outside the circuit, the federal appeals court unanimously rejected nineteen issues raised by Roof’s appellate lawyers. Those issues include matters related to Roof’s mental competency, waiver of counsel, waiver of mitigating evidence, limitations imposed on his stand-by counsel, the prosecution’s presentation of victim-impact testimony beyond what is constitutionally permitted, and a number of challenges to the application of the federal death penalty statute in his case.

“No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did,” the judges wrote in an unsigned opinion. “His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose.”

Judges Duane Benton of the Eighth Circuit, Kent A. Jordan of the Third Circuit, and Ronald Lee Gilman, a senior judge of the Sixth Circuit, sat by special designation in the case after all of the judges of the Fourth Circuit recused themselves from Roof’s appeal. The circuit judges withdrew from the case to avoid any appearance of conflict stemming from the fact that Jay Richardson, who prosecuted Roof’s case while serving as an assistant U.S. attorney, now serves as a judge on the circuit.

In oral argument before the circuit panel, Roof’s attorneys had asserted that he suffered from racist delusions that prevented him from rationally determining whether to be represented by counsel at trial and in sentencing. Roof was “clearly delusional,” appeal counsel Sapna Mirchandani told the court. He should not have been allowed to represent himself at sentencing because, his attorneys said, he was “under the delusion” that “he would be rescued from prison by white-nationalists — but only, bizarrely, if he kept his mental-impairments out of the public record.” Roof was permitted to represent himself in the penalty phase of his trial, electing to proceed without counsel because he did not want his attorneys to present mitigating evidence that he has several mental illnesses, including schizophrenia spectrum disorder, autism, anxiety, and depression.

The appeals panel ruled that District Court Judge Richard Gergel did not commit clear error in finding Roof competent to stand trial or in allowing him to represent himself in the penalty phase — the legal standard necessary for reversing a trial court factfinding. After describing the evidence presented by both sides during Roof’s competency hearings, the panel said that while “Roof’s defense team presented expert evidence disagreeing with” the competency findings of the court-appointed mental health expert, James C. Ballenger, the district court “was well within its discretion” to rely upon Dr. Ballenger’s conclusion that Roof was competent. Given that competency finding, the appeals court said, Judge Gergel’s decision permitting Roof to waive counsel also did not constitute clear error.

In response to the court’s ruling, attorney Andy Savage, who represents three survivors of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, as well as family members of the victims, said his clients expected the ruling, but were frustrated that Roof continues not to take responsibility for his actions. “Every time he gets in the newspaper, he’s blaming someone other than himself. While they want to have sympathy for him, it’s pretty hard to have sympathy for someone who doesn’t acknowledge the responsibility,” Savage said. “I don’t think they have any joy that he’s a step closer to carrying out the will of the jury, but hopefully one day they’ll be able to live without this black cloud over them of what he’s doing, what he’s up to.”

The losing party in a federal capital direct appeal is entitled to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. That stage of appeal, know as a petition for writ of certiorari, typically takes a year or more to resolve. If the Supreme Court declines to review the case, or agrees to review it but upholds the conviction and death sentence, the case returns to the trial court for a new stage of appeal called habeas corpus. Habeas corpus proceedings in the district court, followed by appeals to the federal circuit court and the U.S. Supreme Court, can take a decade or more.


John Monk, Caitlin Byrd, and David Travis Bland, Charleston killer Dylann Roof’s death penal­ty upheld by fed­er­al appeals court, The State, August 26, 2021; U.S. court upholds con­vic­tion, death sen­tence of Dylann Roof, Reuters, August 25, 2021; Appeals court upholds death sen­tence for Charleston church shoot­er Dylann Roof, CBS News, August 25, 2021; Tim Darnell, Charleston church shoot­er Dylann Roof’s death sen­tence upheld, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 252021.

Read the Fourth Circuit’s direct appeal opin­ion in United States v. Roof.