Calling his attorneys "the sneakiest group of people I have ever met,” Dylann Roof reached out to federal prosecutors on the eve of his hate crimes trial in an effort to scuttle a planned mental health defense aimed at sparing him the death penalty.
Roof blistered his legal team in a three-page jailhouse letter, accusing them of tricking him into undergoing tests to challenge his competency to stand trial for killing nine black worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.
Roof told prosecutors he wanted no part of this strategy, which he labeled "a lie."
"Because I have no real defense, my lawyers have been forced to grasp at straws and present a pathetic, fraudulent excuse for a defense in my name," he wrote in early November. "They have regularly told me in an aggressive manner that I have no say in my own defense, that my input doesn't matter, and that there is nothing I can do about it."
Roof's letter was among more than 70 filings that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel unsealed Tuesday – one day after the 23-year-old white supremacist pleaded guilty to nine counts of murder in state court. Though Roof’s federal trial ended in January with a death sentence, Gergel had been reluctant to release records about his mental status while the state case was pending.
The newly unsealed documents show procedural disagreements over how Roof’s mental health would be evaluated and growing discord between the killer and his top-flight legal team of capital defense specialists.
Roof railed at their “slick” tactics, and they in turn expressed frustration with a “delusional” client who seemed preoccupied with fantasies that white supremacists would break him out of prison and make him governor of South Carolina, the documents show.
In the handwritten November letter to “Prosecution,” Roof alleged that his legal team had told him he was being tested to determine if a thyroid condition had affected his brain when they were really compiling evidence to challenge his competency.
He said he wanted the people trying to convict him to know that “what my lawyers plan to say in my defense is a lie and will be said without my consent or permission.”
“My lawyers have purposely kept me in the dark about my defense until the last minute in order to prevent me from being able to do anything about it, which is why I have been forced to write to you,” he stated. “Throughout my case they have used scare tactics, threats, manipulation, and outright lies to further their own, not my, agenda.”
He warned prosecutors not to let his legal team “fool you or the court like they’ve fooled me.”
Prosecutors notified Roof's lawyers after receiving the letter, and lead defense attorney David Bruck agreed that Gergel, the trial judge, needed to see the missive, according to a chain of emails.
After a closed-door meeting on Nov. 7, Roof's lawyers pleaded with the judge to delay planned jury selection in the case so Roof could undergo an extensive mental competency review. They repeatedly described Roof as delusional, and noted his "depression, extreme anxiety and autism spectrum disorder."
They stated that their tenuous working relationship with him had suffered "a severe rupture" when he "openly attempted to sabotage his own case" by reaching out to prosecutors.
"(W)e are now faced with a client who would rather die than be labeled mentally ill or neuro-developmentally impaired, and who would rather communicate and ally himself with those who propose to execute him than us," his attorneys wrote.
The attorneys stated that Roof believed "the very white nationalists whom he considers his allies" would turn on him and persecute him for his "perceived infirmities" if he were to be labeled incompetent. They stated that Roof had "an irrational belief that being labeled mentally impaired will affect the defendant's standing with some hypothetical white nationalists whom the defendant has never met or communicated with — and cannot even name — but whom he believes may appoint him to a high government position some day."
They attached notes indicating that Roof had been so distracted by his delusional ideas that he was unable to respond to the basic needs of his defense. Among his odd notions was a fantasy that white supremacists would stage a prison break to rescue him from captivity, they said.
"His single-minded focus on being rescued and made governor of South Carolina makes salient to him things that are irrational and he cannot rationally assist counsel as a result," they stated.
Gergel agreed to delay jury selection until later that same month, but he balked at sending Roof to a federal Bureau of Prisons medical facility for an extended evaluation. Roof was instead evaluated at the Charleston County jail by a local forensic psychiatrist, James Ballenger.
Ballenger met with Roof for eight hours over three sessions and found no evidence of an undiagnosed psychosis, as his attorneys contended. Rather, the psychiatrist found Roof’s conduct appeared to be attributable to his “deep racial prejudice,” according to a newly unsealed Nov. 25 ruling by Gergel.
Though Roof met the criteria for social anxiety disorder, mixed substance abuse disorder, schizoid personality disorder, depression, and possible autistic spectrum disorder, the psychiatrist determined none of those conditions rendered him incompetent to stand trial, the ruling stated.
During his interviews with Ballenger, Roof described himself as “a political prisoner, similar to a Muslim extremist or Jihadist,” Gergel wrote in the ruling. He told the psychiatrist his actions were about “waking up white people” and that shooting up a black church “was the most outrageous thing he could do,” the document stated.
Roof also explained that he hoped “one day there would be a white nationalist revolution and that if he was diagnosed as mentally ill or defective his acts in furtherance of that desired revolution would be discredited and his reputation as a ‘perfect specimen’ would be destroyed."
Roof later maintained during a closed court hearing that a defense challenging his mental health “discredits the reason why I did the crime,” the ruling stated.
Gergel found Roof fit to stand trial, and he went on to represent himself during the trial's penalty phase to keep jurors from hearing evidence related to his mental health.
"There's nothing wrong with me psychologically," Roof insisted in his opening statement.
Roof was convicted in December of 33 federal offenses stemming from the racially motivated killings, which occurred during a Bible study. He was sentenced to death the following month. He is expected to be transferred to federal custody following his guilty plea in state court, where he was sentenced to nine life terms in prison for his crimes.
In his 15-page ruling, Gergel noted that Roof had continued to object to the release of records pertaining to his mental competency. But the judge ruled there is "manifest public interest" in evidence supporting his decision that Roof was mentally fit to stand trial for a capital offense.
"The Court understands Defendant does not wish to have this material unsealed, but Defendant's wishes are entitled to no weight," Gergel wrote.
Court staff had not posted all of the newly unsealed documents by late Tuesday, and Gergel held back others — including a full transcript of a second Roof competency hearing — so he can consider possible redaction requests offered by the defense.