Dylann Roof, who is accused of shooting and killing 9 people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, got an outspoken proponent for racial justice as his public defender. (h/t The Marshall Project).
David Bruck was appointed to defend Roof on federal hate crime charges on July 23. He is a prominent capital punishment expert who also worked on the team defending Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death in May.
Roof faces 33 federal counts in addition to state charges, which include nine counts of murder. The federal indictment states that by attacking African-American parishioners, Roof “wanted to increase racial tensions across the nation.” He will face two trials, one local and one federal, with the state likely to go first.
For the federal trial, his defender will be Bruck, a professor at the Washington and Lee School of Law, who has decades of experience defending capital punishment cases, and a long career of practicing law in South Carolina. In 1995 he famously won Susan Smith, a woman who killed her two sons, a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
In addition to being a staunch opponent of the death penalty, Bruck has been a longtime critic of the racial injustice inherent in the US criminal justice system. He wrote in The Washington Post in 1986 about the case of Albert Thompson, a 20-year-old black man who killed a white store owner in a robbery and was sentenced to death:
If Thompson had been white, or if his victim had been black, maybe the victim’s family would have been less intent on a death sentence. Then the prosecutor would have had a freer hand to send Thompson to prison rather than to death row. Or maybe, just for a moment, the jury would have put themselves in Thompson’s shoes or in his family’s, and shown mercy in sentencing him. But in the coin of the criminal court, Thompson had done something more serious than just killing a man. He had killed a white man.
In the landmark 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp case the Supreme Court rejected the defense that Georgia gives death sentences to blacks who killed whites four times more often than when the victim is black. At the time, Bruck wrote: “The Supreme Court has accepted that the system is weighted by race, and has responded by telling us that if that is the sort of system we want, we can have it.”
Bruck’s indictment of the criminal justice system holds today. Research shows that there is significant racial bias in death penalty sentencing. For one, the race of the victim is likely to influence the decision whether to charge the defendant with capital punishment; those who murder whites are sentenced to death disproportionately more often than those who murder blacks. Moreover, studies show that African American defendants are much more likely to receive capital punishment than white defendants.
Currently, the population of black and white defendants on death row is nearly equal, with 41.67% being black, and and 42.77% being white.