Inside the Courts

A heinous crime gets a speedy trial

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, left, announces her intention to seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof in the killing of nine people at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, left, announces her intention to seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof in the killing of nine people at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. AP

As a Southerner of a certain age, I’m not accustomed to the wheels of justice turning so quickly for iconic civil rights killings.

It took Alabama 15 years to convict “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss of the 1963 church bombing that killed four young Birmingham girls, even though the Klan terrorist and his co-conspirators had been identified by the FBI as suspects only two years after the crime.

Five months after the bombing, Byron De La Beckwith gunned down Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Yet more than 30 years passed before a jury convicted the former White Citizens’ Council member at his third trial.

Times have changed.

Last June, witnesses say, white supremacist Dylann Roof prayed with members of Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, then started shooting them. Nine people died. The outrage that followed helped persuade Gov. Nikki Haley and other state leaders to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the historic State Capitol.

In another clear break from the past, Roof will receive a speedy trial. His death-penalty case will go before a judge and jury a little more than a year after his arrest. The state Supreme Court has even issued an order blocking Charleston County’s top prosecutor, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, from trying any other case before Roof’s.

That order had unintended consequences this week on the Low Country’s other nationally significant case. North Charleston police Officer Michael Slager had been jailed and charged with murder since his arrest in the April shooting death of an unarmed black motorist. A now famous cellphone video showed the officer firing repeatedly at Walter Scott as he ran from a traffic stop. In a jail interview, Slager said he felt threatened, didn’t know Scott was unarmed and opened fire because he feared Scott would shoot him first.

This week, a judge released Slager on $500,000 bond, saying that he was troubled that the officer’s trial would be delayed until late October because Roof’s case must come first. That means Slager will go on trial about a year and a half after his arrest.

Either of these cases might define a prosecutor’s career. Wilson, her county’s first female solicitor, has both. While the timing might sound daunting, Wilson’s former boss, prominent South Carolina attorney Dick Harpootlian, says the nature of the cases should allow Wilson to try them both and try them well.

While the Slager trial will likely focus on two versions of the facts, Roof so far has not offered a defense. That should save the prosecution time. “The chances of him being convicted are 100 percent,” Harpootlian says. “The only issue is life or death.”

This week, Wilson told me that teams of three prosecutors – herself, her chief deputy and a separate senior attorney from her staff – will handle each case. If she is feeling pressure for handling such high-profile cases, she does not express it.

“We will be ready,” she said.

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