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United States v. Roof

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

May 10, 2017

United States of America,
v.
Dylann Storm Roof

          ORDER AND OPINION

          Richard Mark Gergel United States District Court Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's motion for a new trial or a judgment of acquittal. (Dkt. No. 916.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies the motion.

         I. Background

         On July 22, 2015, a federal grand jury returned a 33-count indictment charging Defendant Dylann Roof with multiple counts of 5 offenses:

• Counts 1-9 allege racially motivated hate crimes resulting in death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(1);
• Counts 10-12 allege racially motivated hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(1);
• Counts 13-21 allege obstruction of religious exercise resulting in death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 247(a)(2);
• Counts 22-24 allege obstruction of religious exercise involving an attempt to kill using a weapon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 247(a)(2); and
• Counts 25-33 allege use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence prosecutable in federal court, in violation of 18 U.S.C, §§ 924(c) and (j).
(Dkt. No. 1.)

         Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, and the Court denied Defendant's motion. (Dkt. Nos. 233, 735.) After a seven-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. (Dkt. No. 817.) In the sentencing phase, the jury returned death sentence verdicts on Counts 13-21 and 25-33 (Dkt. No. 871), and the Court imposed life sentences without the possibility of parole for Counts 1-12 and 22-24 (Dkt. No. 885).

         During the January 11, 2017 sentencing hearing, the Court orally granted in part Defendant's motion for an extension of time to file post-trial motions.[1] Defendant filed a motion for a new trial or a judgment of acquittal under Rules 29(c) and 33(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure on February 10, 2017. (Dkt. No. 916.) He argues the Government failed to establish the interstate commerce nexus required by § 247(a)(2). Defendant also argues the alleged violations of §§ 247(a)(2) and 249(a)(1) are not crimes of violence within the meaning of § 924(c)(3). Defendant's motion does not challenge his convictions under § 249(a)(1).

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Rule 29(c) Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal

         Rule 29(c) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permits a defendant to move for a judgment of acquittal. The Court must determine "whether there is substantial evidence (direct or circumstantial) which, taken in the light most favorable to the prosecution, would warrant a jury finding that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. MacCloskey, 682 F.2d 468, 473 (4th Cir. 1982). "The jury's verdict must be accepted if, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, any rational trier of fact could have found the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. United Med. & Surgical Supply Corp., 989 F.2d 1390, 1402 (4th Cir. 1993).

         B. Rule 33 Motion for a New Trial

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33(a) permits a court, upon a defendant's motion, to "vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." Whether a defendant gets a new trial is left to the trial court's discretion. United States v. Smith, 451 F.3d 209, 216-17 (4th Cir. 2006). The Fourth Circuit has held that a trial court "should exercise its discretion to grant a new trial sparingly, and that it should do so only when the evidence weighs heavily against the verdict." United States v. Perry, 335 F.3d 316, 320 (4th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). Where the evidence in the record is sufficient to support the jury's verdict, a Rule 33 motion must be denied. United States v. Singh, 518 F.3d 236, 250 (4th Cir. 2008).

         III. Discussion

         A. Section 247(a)'s Interstate Commerce Nexus

         The Commerce Clause delegates to Congress the power "[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." U.S. Const, art. I, § 8, cl. 3. The Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress "[t]o make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, " which include the Commerce Clause. U.S. Const, art. I, § 8, cl. 18. The Supreme Court has "identified three broad categories of activity that Congress may regulate under its commerce power"; (1) the use and channels of interstate commerce; (2) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce; and (3) those activities having substantial relations to interstate commerce. United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 558-59(1995).

         Defendant was convicted of multiple violations of the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-155 § 3, 110 Stat. 1392, 1392-93 (1996) (codified at 28 U.S.C. sec. 247(a)) (the "Church Arson Act"). Section 247 provides, in relevant part,

(a) Whoever, in any of the circumstances referred to in subsection (b) of this section-
. . . .
(2) intentionally obstructs, by force or threat of force, any person in the enjoyment of that person's free exercise of religious beliefs, or attempts to do so;
shall be punished as provided in subsection (d).
(b) The circumstances referred to in subsection (a) are that the offense is in or affects interstate or foreign commerce.

         Defendant argues that because his offense was noneconomic, because he did not travel in interstate commerce to commit it, and because he used items purchased in South Carolina, the Government failed to establish that the offense-that is, the intentional, forcible obstruction of the free exercise of religion-was in or affected interstate commerce. (Dkt. No. 916 at 2-5.) This argument repeats Defendant's pretrial as-applied constitutional challenge to § 247(a)(2). (See Dkt. No. 735 at 25 ("According to Defendant, a noneconomic crime in South Carolina, committed by a South Carolina resident, and using items purchased in South Carolina, lacks an interstate commerce nexus .... The alleged nexuses with interstate commerce are sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.").)

         At trial, the Government presented evidence that Defendant attacked parishioners at Mother Emanuel during a Wednesday-night Bible study. Defendant used the internet to conduct research and identify Mother Emanuel as his target, a telephone to contact the church directly, and GPS navigation satellites to navigate interstate highways on his multiple trips to and from the vicinity of the church. He used a Russia-based service to host the online manifesto he posted shortly before the attack at Mother Emanuel, which explained his motives. In preparation for the attack, Defendant purchased hollow-point bullets, magazines, and a firearm that had all travelled in interstate commerce. Defendant entered Mother Emanuel carrying the firearm and loaded magazines in a tactical pouch that had travelled in interstate commerce. Inside the church, Defendant used the items he procured to kill nine parishioners. Defendant presented no evidence to counter this evidence, and a rational fact-finder viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government could conclude that the Government established an interstate commerce nexus. See, e.g., United States v. Morgan, 748 F.3d 1024, 1034 (10th Cir. 2014) (holding that a GPS device is an instrumentality of interstate commerce); United States v. MacEwan, 445 F.3d 237, 245 (3d Cir, 2006) ("[T]he Internet is an instrumentality and channel of interstate commerce."); United States v. Corum, 362 F.3d 489, 493 (8th Cir. 2004) ("It is well-established that telephones, even when used intrastate, are instrumentalities of interstate commerce."); United States v. Gallimore, 247 F.3d 134, 138 (4th Cir. 2001) ("[T]he Government may establish the requisite interstate commerce nexus by showing that a firearm was manufactured outside the state where the defendant possessed it"); United States v. Mason, 993 F.Supp.2d 1308, 1317 (D. Or. 2014) (rejecting a pretrial as-applied challenge to a § 249 claim because the Government alleged that the weapon used in the attack traveled in interstate commerce).

         Defendant argues that the proper test is whether the offense was in interstate commerce, not whether the items used to commit the offense were in interstate commerce. (Dkt. No. 916 at 3.) The Court finds that argument unpersuasive. Congress has plenary authority to regulate use of the channels of interstate commerce and to regulate the use of things in interstate commerce. United States v. Williams, 342 F.3d 350, 354 (4th Cir. 2003) ("Under the Commerce Clause, Congress has plenary authority to regulate (1) the use of the channels of interstate commerce, (2) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce, even though the threat may come only from intrastate activities . . . ." (internal quotation marks omitted)). That means Congress may prohibit use of the channels of interstate commerce, like the internet, or use of things in interstate commerce, like an imported Austrian pistol, for criminal purposes like mass murder. As the Court previously held, "Congress has authority to ... prohibit use of the interstate highway system, national telecommunications networks, or the interstate market in firearms and ammunition to attack churches." (Dkt. No. 735 at 21.)[2]

         B. Violations of § 247 and § 249 as crimes of violence under § 924(c)

         The jury found Defendant guilty of nine counts of using a firearm during and in relation to a "crime of violence" prosecutable in federal court, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(3) and 9240). A "crime of violence" under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3) is defined by the below language:

For purposes of this subsection the term "crime of violence" means an offense that is a ...

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