Roof’s death penalty trial postponed until 2017 Psychiatric testing incomplete; judge asks if request is ‘delaying tactic’

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson questions attorneys Wednesday at the Charleston County courthouse before he approved a delay in Dylann Roof’s murder trial.

A judge on Wednesday delayed Dylann Roof’s death penalty trial until early next year because the defendant’s psychiatric evaluation had not been completed.

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson said he felt “obligated” to approve the defense team’s request for a continuance based on a doctor’s report. The trial was reset for Jan. 17 with jury qualification scheduled to start Dec. 6.

Still, Nicholson expressed concerns about whether incomplete tests and analyses of the 22-year-old accused of killing nine people at Emanuel AME Church amounted to a “delaying tactic.” He often spoke sternly during a hearing in downtown Charleston, scolding attorneys at times and ordering Roof’s defense team to keep him updated monthly on its progress.

Roof, an Eastover resident, would face a penalty phase if convicted of murder. Much of the evidence that his lawyers still seek would help them fight for a life sentence during that portion of the trial instead of execution.

“It’s not a delaying tactic,” one of Roof’s lawyers, Bill McGuire of the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense, told the judge. “We have to do it step by step. We want to go to trial, too.”

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson had said in court filings before Wednesday’s hearing that she would agree to a reasonable delay if it was necessary for Roof’s defense. Based on the doctors’ reports from the defense team, though, the prosecutor ended up opposing any continuance.

“I know the victims are eager” to put the trial behind them, Wilson said.

Several of the victims’ families attended the proceeding. An attorney for some of them, Andy Savage, has said they would not second-guess any decision to delay the trial.

Still unclear was how the new schedule would affect the Oct. 31 trial date for Michael Slager, the former North Charleston officer charged with murder in the shooting of Walter Scott. Wilson, who is prosecuting both cases, isn’t required to appear in any case but Roof’s until after his trial.

Roof also could face the death penalty in federal court, where he is charged with 33 counts, but prosecutors there have not decided whether to seek it, causing four delays in that case.

Wednesday’s hearing in state court revealed mounting tensions among the opposing sides and the judge. Raising his voice, Nicholson said he had grown tired of being copied on emails in which the defense and the prosecution are “yeah-yeahing back and forth.” Aside from the ones addressed to him, he hasn’t read them, Nicholson said.

He ordered the attorneys to stop and told 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, who stood to discuss the issue, that it wasn’t up for debate.

Nicholson indicated that a dispute had emerged over the constitutional admissibility of evidence. He urged the defense team to file a suppression motion if it planned to oppose the evidence. Addressing the courtroom rivals, the judge said he hoped that a hearing on the issue would help “end this controversy between the two of you.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.