Monday, November 28, 2016

Dylann Roof to Represent Himself at Trial in Charleston Church Shootings
New York Times
NOV. 28, 2016

ATLANTA — A federal judge on Monday granted Dylann S. Roof’s request to represent himself in his hate crimes trial on charges of killing nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., raising the possibility that the avowed white supremacist could cross-examine survivors and family members of the deceased.

Death penalty experts predicted that Mr. Roof’s trial, a deeply somber matter in a city still recovering from the massacre, would now take on elements of farce and reveal less than some hoped about the psychological origins of Mr. Roof’s alleged rampage. By controlling his case, they said, Mr. Roof may decline to present evidence of his mental instability that his highly regarded defense team might have emphasized in both the guilt and penalty phases. Federal prosecutors are seeking to send Mr. Roof to death row, having rejected his offer to plead guilty to 33 charges in exchange for a life sentence.

Jury selection in Mr. Roof’s trial had been delayed for three weeks after his lawyers petitioned Judge Richard M. Gergel of Federal District Court in Charleston to declare him incompetent to stand trial. A two-day hearing on that question was closed, but it now seems likely that Mr. Roof’s relationship with his legal team broke down over its desire to present evidence related to his mental state.

On Friday, having studied a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, Judge Gergel ruled that Mr. Roof was competent. The standard for competency is low under federal law, merely a determination that the defendant is not suffering from a mental defect that renders him unable to assist in his defense or understand the consequences of the case.

On Monday, as jury selection was about to begin, Mr. Roof, dressed in prison stripes, asked the judge for permission to serve as his own lawyer. According to a report in the Charleston newspaper The Post and Courier, Judge Gergel advised Mr. Roof against doing so, citing the expertise of a legal team led by the noted capital defense lawyer David I. Bruck. But having found Mr. Roof competent, he said the defendant had the right to self-representation under the Sixth Amendment.

“I do find the defendant has the personal capacity to self-representation,” Judge Gergel said. “I continue to believe it is strategically unwise, but it is a decision you have the right to make.”

The newspaper reported that Mr. Roof smiled slightly as he returned to the defense table, where Mr. Bruck moved over to give Mr. Roof his seat. Mr. Bruck and other members of his team will now serve as advisory “standby counsel.”

Judge Gergel, the prosecutors and Mr. Roof then began the process of winnowing a pool of 512 people down to 12 jurors and six alternates by asking about their views on the death penalty and their exposure to pretrial publicity. Mr. Roof did not often participate, according to courtroom observers, commenting on only a couple of potential jurors. Jury selection is expected to last several weeks.

Mr. Roof, 22, stands accused of killing the church’s pastor, three other ministers and five stalwarts of the congregation at a Bible study session in the fellowship hall on June 17, 2015. The gunman sat with the group for close to an hour before removing a Glock pistol from his fanny pack and opening fire while making racist comments. Two women and a child in the Bible study survived, as did the pastor’s wife and their younger daughter, who were hiding in his adjacent office. Mr. Roof was captured the next day in North Carolina.

It is uncommon but not unprecedented for capital defendants to represent themselves, and they typically do not fare well.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was sentenced to death in 2013 for killing 13 people and wounding or shooting at 32 others in a 2009 rampage at Fort Hood, Tex. As his own attorney, he did not call witnesses or offer testimony, and confessed in an opening statement by explaining that he had switched sides in what he saw as an American war against Islam.

In 2015, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. received the death penalty for killing three people at two Jewish centers in Kansas the previous year. Mr. Miller, who had a history of making anti-Semitic remarks, represented himself and shouted “Heil Hitler” in court after being sentenced.

Although New York did not have a death penalty at the time, Colin Ferguson fired his lawyers, William M. Kunstler and Ronald L. Kuby, and represented himself in his 1995 trial for a killing rampage in a Long Island Rail Road car. He received six consecutive life sentences.

Scott Panetti, a Navy veteran found to be schizophrenic, was sentenced to die in Texas for murdering the parents of his second wife in 1992 after a trial in which he represented himself while wearing a purple cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena witnesses including Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy.

Death penalty experts said capital defendants at times chose to represent themselves to keep out evidence of their mental or emotional conditions, even though such evidence may provide the best chance to save their lives.

In Mr. Roof’s case, said John Blume, a death penalty authority at Cornell Law School, “his desire to keep his mental capacity under wraps has really jeopardized the jury’s ability to make an accurate assessment of his moral culpability.”

However, the decision could provide Mr. Roof with an unobstructed forum for his white supremacist views.

“Key issues never get raised because the defendant knows nothing about the law,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “And often with mentally ill defendants whose murders were a product of their mental illness, they will attempt to justify their conduct instead of presenting evidence that their mental illness makes them less culpable.”

The judge’s decision is likely to make Mr. Roof’s trial even more traumatic for survivors and family members. “When an emotionally disturbed defendant is permitted to cross-examine those witnesses and ask questions that may be based on a delusional view of reality, it only makes things worse,” Mr. Dunham said.

Daniel Victor contributed reporting from New York.

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