The accused Charleston church shooter had a troubled past even before he was arrested for killing nine people at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.
USA TODAY NETWORK
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The white supremacist accused of killing nine black parishioners during a Bible study is intent on keeping a secret as jury selection for his upcoming trial continues.
Dylann Roof, representing himself against murder and hate crime charges, on Friday told a federal judge he does not want his former defense attorneys to present evidence they believe would be favorable to his case. The nature of the evidence that has caused a rift between Roof and the attorneys has not been publicly disclosed.
By Friday evening, the court completed its individual questioning of jurors, ending with a pool of 67. From that lot, prosecutors and Roof will strike prospective members until a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates is reached, a process set to begin Wednesday, a day that will likely also see opening statements from the government.
Court will resume on Monday as pretrial motions are presented.
Since finding Roof competent to represent himself, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel has repeatedly chastised Roof’s former defense team, first for speaking for their former client in court, and later for filing motions relating to their desire to win a louder voice in Roof’s trial.
“You can’t have a two-headed monster, pardon me, you cannot have two people making a decision,” Gergel said Friday after Roof’s former lead defender tried to argue for a larger role in the case. “You must have one person.”
Even with the rift between Roof and his defense team regarding that mitigating evidence, the 22-year-old defendant also wants to allow his dismissed lawyers to speak for him in court, while retaining all decision-making powers.
Gergel has refused that arrangement, repeatedly informing Roof that should he again want to be represented by his defense team, the court would entertain that motion.
He told Roof on Friday that he hopes the weekend, with advice from family and his standby counsel, brings him back around to agreeing to legal representation.
“You have a little bit of the flavor of what it’s like to represent yourself,” Gergel had told him Thursday, a sentiment he echoed Friday morning.
The flavor of lawyering that Roof has experienced is only a small taste courtroom pressures. In the current stage of jury selection — one that seeks to qualify 70 people as potential jurors — all are individually questioned by the judge, often with a focus on their feelings regarding the death penalty.
Dylann Roof faces 33 federal charges related to nine deaths in the June 2015 shootings. (Photo: Associated Press)
Prosecutors and Roof can propose further questions or move to keep or strike prospective jurors once they leave the room, but all of the interviewing to this point, and therefore the bulk of work, has been done by Gergel.
When jury prospects are out of earshot, the judge has allowed Roof time to consult with his standby counsel about questions that should be put to individuals, but has chastised that team when they try to speak to the court directly.
Roof continues to work with and speak cordially to his former lawyers, a team that includes some of the country’s most respected names in death penalty litigation.
His former lead attorney is David Bruck, who has taken seven capital cases to the U.S. Supreme Court and cemented his status in the national spotlight two decades ago by winning a life sentence for Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who faced a death penalty trial in the drownings of her two young sons.
In court documents, Bruck and colleagues argue capital cases offer complexities beyond the skill sets of even experienced criminal attorneys.
In part, the motion argues that defense attorneys should be allowed to explain objections to the court in the next phase of jury selection, when Roof and prosecutors will begin striking members of the pool to reach a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates.
Objections serve as critical markers when the trial phase is complete and the case moves to appeal. Appellate judges review those points to determine whether the trial court made proper rulings, but if no objections are lodged, they cannot be reviewed.
“If this trial cannot be avoided, the hope remains that it will somehow shed some additional light on the events of June 17, 2015. The Court’s refusal to permit the defendant to call on standby counsel for assistance works against even that modest aim,” wrote Sarah Gannett, an assistant federal public defender who is among the team aiding Roof.
The issue at hand pushes into “uncharted territory,” pitting constitutional rights against one another, said John Blume, director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project and a law professor at that university.
“If you have a defendant who is representing himself, especially one who appears to not want to have information about their life and background and mental state come out, that skews the reliability of the sentencing decision and would potentially create Eighth Amendment problems,” he said.
The Eighth Amendment, dealing with cruel and unusual punishment, guarantee capital punishment cannot be applied arbitrarily, while the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial and for competent defendants, the right to self-representation.
Roof’s intent to keep a secret that, if known, might sway a jury toward a life sentence creates a gray area of law, one that has not been addressed by higher federal courts.
The death penalty sentencing system intends for juries to hear aggravating circumstances as presented by the prosecution and a mitigating case as offered by the defense. But if the panel isn’t privy to a mental health condition, a violent childhood or similar issues, the jury cannot contextualize the case and make a reasoned response, Blume said.
“It means the process isn’t going to work like it’s intended to work. I don’t know enough about Roof’s case, but in some cases it just becomes a sham,” he said. “It’s really nothing more than suicide by nontrial.”
Legal experts roundly criticize Roof’s self-representation decision. But it does offer one potential advantage: He can directly make arguments before the jury, such as in opening and closing statements, but is not subject to cross-examination by federal prosecutors unless he opts to take the stand.
The judge has repeatedly alluded to that benefit in indicating he has little intention of expanding the role of standby counsel.
Throughout Friday morning, Bruck often raised his hand to hold his forehead, while a fellow defense attorney slumped in her seat, each of them becoming visibly more dejected as the day wore on.
Bruck explained that frustration to the judge by saying Roof would not lodge objections to particular juror candidates being struck, individuals who seemed to favor life imprisonment over capital punishment. He noted one dismissed woman who, after much wavering, said she could not vote for the death penalty.
Bruck, raising Gergel’s ire for again addressing the court, asked the judge to explain to Roof that he could raise objections without providing long explanations.
“Only the court can get that across,” Bruck said. “I can’t. I tried and I’ve failed.”
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