The recent shooting at the Charleston African Methodist Episcopal (AME) was a true tragedy that captured the nation's collective attention and sympathy. Authorities say the lone gunman entered the church under the guise of wanting to participate at a prayer discussion group when he took out his gun and killed nine people at the meeting and injured several more.
The 21-year-old defendant allegedly came to the bible study group with .45 caliber automatic Glock pistol with eight magazines of ammunition, while the victims brought their personal study bibles, according to the United States Attorney in South Carolina as reported by Reuters.
The indictment said he planned the attack for months and allegedly chose this 200-year-old church because of its historical importance to the black community. Prosecutors have said they are not sure whether they will seek the death penalty in this case and said there are many factors to consider; however, this case has been indicted as a hate crime, which makes it an aggravated murder charge eligible for the death penalty.
In addition to the federal murder charges just released, the suspect has nine counts of murder already charged by state prosecutors at the Ninth Circuit Solicitor's Office in Charleston, South Carolina. While many people think the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “Double Jeopardy” prevents a person from being charged or prosecuted twice, this is not always true.
As our Birmingham criminal defense attorneys can explain, the Double Jeopardy clause really stands for the preposition that a person shall not be tried twice for a single offense by a single sovereignty. In other words, no government can charge a person twice for the same offense. However, the United States government and the government in the state of South Carolina are separate sovereigns with independent power and authorities to prosecute offenders.
This is why a person can be tried in a federal court, and if the federal court trial does not result in a death sentence, the person can be tried again in a state court for the same crime, and, if found guilty, the jury can sentence the offender to death, if it is an appropriate sentence in the state for that particular crime.
It should also be noted, it can happen the other way around, where a person was charged with a crime and prosecuted in state court first and then prosecuted in federal court as the order of who prosecutes the defendant first.
This is what happened with Terry Nichols, who was convicted for his involvement in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Federal prosecutors charged him with multiple counts of capital murder. While he was found guilty, the jury was deadlocked on the death penalty, and he was sentenced to multiple life terms in federal prison. Following his convictions, the state of Oklahoma prosecuted for the same murders and under state law grounds in a second attempt to secure the death penalty. However, much like the federal trial, Nichols was convicted for his involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing, but the jury was deadlocked on the death sentence. In the end, he was given 161 consecutive life sentences to be served in the United States “Supermax” prison ADX Florence, also know as the Alcatraz of the Rockies.
Charleston shooting suspect charged with federal hate crimes, July 22, 2015, Reuters