COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - United States Attorney for the District of South Carolina Bill Nettles and his staff have been working hard on prosecuting 21-year-old Dylann Roof.
"It is important to people to know that the federal government takes this – seriously would be an understatement – to say that it's a priority is an understatement – it's a passion with a lot of us," the federal prosecutor said. "We've been involved since Wednesday night."
The Wednesday night he's talking about is Wednesday, June 17, when officials say Roof slaughtered nine African-Americans after a Bible study in Charleston. It's a crime that Nettles says was a hate crime on multiple levels.
"It was very clear to us, you know, and we think the evidence will prove that he did it out of hate. I mean, he didn't know anybody in that room," he said.
In a one-on-one interview, Nettles said Roof attacked the Mother Emanuel parishioners because of their race and religion. He said that's why his federal office is so important, since South Carolina is one of just three states without a hate crime statute.
"The state prosecutors simply are unable to address that portion of this tragedy, so consequently, it leaves it to the federal government to prosecute this as a hate crime," Nettles said.
In a Wednesday afternoon news conference, United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch thanked Nettles and his office for their work as she announced the 33 federal grand jury charges against Roof, including 12 hate crime indictments, that Nettles is now tasked with proving in court.
"As set forth in the indictment, several months prior to the tragic events of June 17, Roof conceived of his goal of increasing racial tensions throughout the nation and seeking retribution for perceived wrongs he believed African-Americans had committed against white people," Lynch said. "To carry out these twin goals of fanning racial flames and exacting revenge, Roof further decided to seek out and murder African-Americans because of their race. An essential element of his plan, however, was to find his victims inside of a church, specifically an African-American church, to ensure the greatest notoriety and attention to his actions."
Nettles said while his office is handling the hate crime indictments and collection of other federal charges, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, a state prosecutor, has jurisdiction over the actual murder charges. The federal prosecutor said he doesn't know who will take the lead in the case, but he said both offices are working closely together to prosecute Roof. Nettles said he has been in steady communication with Wilson.
"There's two potential punishments, at this point: life imprisonment or the death penalty," he said.
Nettles said, if the state chooses to seek death for Roof, it's a quicker process than on the federal side. On the federal side, Nettles said it's a lengthier process.
"I get an opinion on what should happen. The victims, let's be clear about something, the victims have a huge impact on what happens. But the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, ultimately will make that decision," Nettles said. "She'll take into account what the defense says, because let's be clear, she hasn't made up her mind yet. The defense will have the opportunity to come to her and explain to her, you know, the 'why' of what happened."
However, at this point, prosecutors on both sides haven't said whether they'll seek the death penalty.
We also asked Nettles if Roof will get a speedy trial. He said the federal government has a "Speedy Trial Act," but his main goal is fairness.
Nettles also said, while the death penalty is still on the table, Wednesday's indictment wasn't drawn up specifically to pursue death. He said it was designed to prosecute the crimes of which they have evidence.