Lawyers of U.S. church shooter argue federal death penalty unconstitutional

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Dylann Roof Faces Death Penalty

Aug 2 (Reuters) - Attorneys for a white man accused of killing nine black parishioners in a racially motivated attack at a South Carolina church a year ago argued that their client should not face the death penalty, asserting the punishment is unconstitutional.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Dylann Roof, 22, who is accused of opening fire on a Bible study session at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015.

The shooting shook the country and intensified debate over U.S. race relations, which were already roiled by numerous high-profile police killings of unarmed black people.

Attorneys for Roof argued in a document filed in a U.S. District Court in South Carolina on Monday that the federal death penalty is "cruel and unusual punishment" and, as a result, violates the U.S. Constitution.

RELATED: Charleston SC shooting, scene and suspect - Dylann Roof

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Charleston SC shooting suspect. Dylann Roof
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Charleston SC 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.
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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"No one can be lawfully sentenced to death or executed under it, no matter what his crimes," the attorneys wrote in the motion.

A court ruling that the Federal Death Penalty Act is unconstitutional would allow Roof to plead guilty and proceed to the sentencing phase of his case in which he could be to life in prison without parole, his attorneys said.

In an earlier court filing, federal prosecutors cited a number of factors for seeking the death penalty, saying Roof singled out victims who were black and elderly, and showed no remorse. They also cited "substantial planning and premeditation."

The argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional is a typical line of defense. The federal trial against Roof is set to begin on Nov. 7.

Federal death sentences are rarely carried out in the United States. Roof also faces a state capital punishment trial, which is scheduled to begin in January.

Roof faces different charges in each case. State prosecutors in South Carolina charged him with murder and attempted murder, while federal prosecutors charged him with 33 counts including hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms offenses.

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