US prosecutors to seek death penalty in South Carolina church shooting

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US Seeking Death Penalty In Charleston Church Massacre Case

CHARLESTON, S.C., May 24 (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine black parishioners at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, the U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday.

"The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

SEE ALSO: Man learns his fate in 4th trial for wife's 2001 murder

Dylann Roof, 22, is accused of opening fire on June 17, 2015, during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The killings shook the country and intensified the debate about race in America.

He faces 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms offenses. Authorities have accused him of holding white supremacist views, saying he targeted the victims because of their race.

His federal trial had been delayed while U.S. prosecutors decided whether to seek the death penalty. Defense attorneys have said he would plead guilty if he did not face the possibility of execution.

He also faces the state death penalty if convicted of the shooting.

Roof's attorney, Michael O'Connell, declined to comment on the prosecution's decision when reached by phone on Tuesday.

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Charleston SC shooting, scene and suspect - Dylann Roof
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US prosecutors to seek death penalty in South Carolina church shooting
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Photos found on a website that allegedly belongs to church shooting suspect Dylann Roof.
Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge in Charleston, S.C, on Friday, June 19, 2015. The 21-year-old man accused of killing nine people inside a black church in Charleston made his first court appearance Friday, with the relatives of all the victims making tearful statements. (Centralized Bond Hearing Court, of Charleston, S.C. via AP, Pool)
Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge in North Charleston, S.C, on Friday, June 19, 2015. The 21-year-old man accused of killing nine people inside a black church in Charleston made his first court appearance Friday, with the relatives of all the victims making tearful statements. (Centralized Bond Hearing Court, of Charleston, S.C. via AP, Pool)
Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, June 19, 2015. The 21-year-old accused of killing nine people inside a black church in Charleston made his first court appearance, with the relatives of all the victims making tearful statements. (Centralized Bond Hearing Court, of Charleston, S.C. via AP)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
This photo provided by Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof, Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof, 21, was arrested Thursday in the slayings of several people Wednesday, including the pastor, at a prayer meeting inside The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
This April 2015 photo released by the Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center shows Dylann Roof, 21. Charleston Police identified Roof as the shooter who opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, June 17, 2015, killing several people. (Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center via AP)
This image has been provided by the Charleston Police Department, Thursday, June 18, 2015. A man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston, S.C., Wednesday night, June 17, 2015, killing nine people, including the pastor in an assault that authorities are calling a hate crime. The shooter remained at large Thursday. (Photo via Charleston Police Department)
This image has been provided by the Charleston Police Department, Thursday, June 18, 2015. A man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston, S.C., Wednesday night, June 17, 2015, killing nine people, including the pastor in an assault that authorities are calling a hate crime. The shooter remained at large Thursday. (Charleston Police Department via AP)
The Emanuel AME Church is viewed behind a police vehicle on June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the Church on the evening of June 17, 2015. US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A police officer holds up a tape in front of the Emanuel AME Church June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the church on the evening of June 17, 2015. US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Map locates Charleston, S.C., site of a church shooting; 3c x 3 inches; 146 mm x 76 mm;
A view ofthe Emanuel AME Church is seen June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the church on the evening of June 17, 2015. US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Map locates Charleston, S.C., site of a church shooting; 1c x 2 inches; 46.5 mm x 50 mm;
The sun begins to rise behind the steeple of Emanuel AME Church, Thursday, June 18, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. On Wednesday, a white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church, killing multiple people, including the pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A man kneels across the street from where police gather outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (Wade Spees/The Post And Courier via AP)
Surreace Cox, of North Charleston, S.C., holds a sign during a prayer vigil down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015, following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police talk to a man outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, inCharleston, S.C. (Wade Spees/The Post And Courier via AP)
A passing motorist looks out her window as she stops at an intersection down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A man looks on as a group of people arrive inquiring about a shooting across the street Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Chaplain James St. John, center, leads senators in prayer, Thursday, June 18, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. State Sen. Clementa Pinckney was one of those killed Wednesday night in a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2012, file photo, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, right, talks to a supporter during a break in a hearing protesting his re-election in Columbia, S.C. A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside an historic black church, in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, killing multiple people, including Pinckney, the church's pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)
State Senator Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) gets emtional as he sits next to the draped desk of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Thursday, June 18, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. Pinckney was one of those killed, Wednesday night in a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, right, stands next to Police Chief Gregory Mullen as he addresses the media down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the scene of a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Lisa Doctor joins a prayer circle down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
The steeple of Emanuel AME Church is visible as police close off a section of Calhoun Street early Thursday, June 18, 2015 following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Charleston Emergency Management Director Mark Wilbert holds a flier distributed to media, Thursday, June 18, 2015, with surveillance footage of a suspect wanted in the connection of a shooting Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church during a news conference, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Images on a flier provided to media, Thursday, June 18, 2015, by the Charleston Police Department show surveillance footage of a suspect wanted in connection with a shooting Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church inCharleston, S.C. (Courtesy of Charleston Police Department via AP)
The desk of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney is draped in black cloth with a single rose and vase, Thursday, June 18, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. Pinckney was one of those killed Wednesday night in a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Investigators work outside the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015, following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the scene of a shooting at Emanuel AME Church, Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church, killing multiple people, including the pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A distraught man is comforted as a group of concerned people arrive inquiring about a shooting across the street Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen speaks during a news conference, Thursday, June 18, 2015, following Wednesday's shooting at Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, S.C. Police released surveillance video of a possible suspect and vehicle in the fatal shooting of multiple people at the historic black church. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police stand outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
An FBI agent walks across the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Worshippers gather to pray down the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police stand outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police close off a section of Calhoun Street near the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police walk down the street from the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Police stand outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A police officer uses a flashlight while searching the area following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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The government said in court documents it would prove a number of factors that would justify a death sentence, saying Roof had planned the killing and showed a lack of remorse.

Joseph Meek, Roof's 21-year-old friend who pleaded guilty last month to federal charges related to the shooting, said Roof had planned the shooting for six months and wanted to start a race war.

Federal prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty against defendants. Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, about three people a year on average have been sentenced to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington.

The most recent death penalty carried out by the federal government occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed by lethal injection for the kidnapping and murder of a 19-year-old Army private.

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in May 2015 for helping carry out the 2013 attack that killed three people and wounded 264 others at the race's finish line.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C.; Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla. and David Ingram in New York; Additional reporting and writing by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)

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