South Carolina church massacre trial delayed as death penalty mulled

Survivors Divided on Death Penalty for Dylann Roof

CHARLESTON, S.C., April 5 (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday granted U.S. prosecutors' request for trial delay as it considers whether to seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine parishioners last summer at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in what prosecutors say was a hate crime.

SEE ALSO: White suspect charged with murder in killings at black US church

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel urged the federal government to make a decision soon on whether they would pursue the death penalty for Dylann Roof, 22, who plans to plead guilty if he will not be facing the possibility of execution. Gergel said he could set a trial date at some point in the interest of a speedy trial.

"There are victims here," Gergel said. "They have a right to put this behind them."

Roof, who faces 33 federal hate crime and firearms charges, is accused of opening fire during a June 17 Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a crime that sparked a fierce social debate about race and gun control in the United States.

Photos from the scene:

16 PHOTOS
Charleston SC shooting suspect. Dylann Roof
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South Carolina church massacre trial delayed as death penalty mulled
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.
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)
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)
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)
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said he understood the Justice Department deliberations on whether to seek the death penalty for Roof had reached the desk of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who will announce the decision.

"This is obviously a very important decision and one that's being taken quite deliberately," Richardson said.

Roof's attorney, David Bruck, said if the death penalty is ruled out, there would be no need for a trial because Roof would plead guilty.

Gergel also had delayed Roof's trial in February at the request of his defense, which needed more time to prepare. The Justice Department also was still considering the death penalty.

The Justice Department declined further comment on Tuesday.

Some family members of victims and a survivor of the shootings attended Tuesday's hearing but Roof did not.

Roof had been linked to white supremacist views and Lynch has said the federal charges against him are based on evidence he targeted his victims because of their race, obstructing their exercise of religion.

South Carolina prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Roof when he is scheduled to go on trial for murder on July 11.

In a related case, defense attorneys and prosecutors said they could be ready by mid-summer for the trial of Roof's friend, Joseph Meek, charged with concealing knowledge of a crime and lying to an FBI agent after the shooting. A trial date was not set.

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