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Dylann Roof takes over his defense as jury mulls death penalty for Emanuel massacre

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Starting Wednesday, it will fall to Dylann Roof to convince a federal jury that he shouldn’t be put to death for executing nine worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The biggest question is whether he will even try.

The 22-year-old white supremacist had dumped his accomplished legal team, taken the reins of his own defense and announced his intention to forgo calling witnesses or introducing evidence to help his case.

Roof has indicated that he plans to make an opening statement when the penalty phase of his hate crimes trial begins Wednesday morning. But just what he will say or do from there remains a bit of a mystery.

The penalty phase of a capital trial generally unfolds in a somewhat predictable manner. The government highlights the impact and severity of the crime at hand. The defense then showcases other factors — a troubled childhood, mental health issues, trauma — to give a broader view of the defendant and encourage a punishment short of death.

Roof has thrown a wild card into the mix by choosing to represent himself. The presiding judge has called that plan ill-advised, but he ruled Monday after a day-long competency hearing that Roof is mentally fit to proceed as his own counsel. But to what end?

Will he use the forum to trumpet the racist views that fueled the church killings? Will he use his new position to cross-examine survivors of the church massacre and families of the dead? Or will he maintain the detached, distant posture he adopted throughout the guilt phase of the trial and offer no defense at all?

Chris Adams, a Charleston-based attorney who has handled numerous death penalty cases, thinks the last option is probably the most likely given what the public has seen of Roof so far.

“I anticipate he’s going to put his head down and hope that it gets over very quickly,” Adams said. “Then the case will go straight to the jury without them having all of the evidence they really need to make an informed decision.”

Roof’s decision to represent himself is “a gift to the prosecution,” Adams said, while depriving the jury of a complete portrait of the man whose fate they must weigh.

“It’s clear we have someone with mental health issues — significant mental health issues — and for them to be not given the full story is really a shame,” he said.

What's ahead

Roof's punishment will fall to the same 12 jurors — three black, nine white — who found him guilty on Dec. 15 of 33 federal counts in the June 2015 church massacre. He was convicted of hate crimes, obstructing religion and firearms violations in the mass shooting. In all, he fired some 77 rounds inside the historic church's fellowship hall, methodically killing a group of parishioners who had welcomed him into their weekly Bible study.

The jury is expected to hear from a powerful collection of survivors and relatives of the dead who will explain how the shooting tore their lives asunder and stole from the community nine kind, good and loving individuals. Some 38 victim-impact witnesses stand ready to testify, as does a veteran FBI agent who chronicled in painstaking detail how Roof plotted and planned to carry out the shooting in hope of sparking a race war.

Jurors may also be introduced to a manifesto Roof is said to have penned in jail while awaiting trial for the killings. Word of this jailhouse diatribe first surfaced in court motions filed last year, but its contents have remained under seal.

The jury already has seen a hate-filled journal and a racist online manifesto Roof drafted prior to the mass shooting. His jailhouse writings, however, have not yet been introduced into evidence, a potential sign that prosecutors have saved the document for the penalty phase to show a lack of remorse on Roof’s part.

During a pre-trial hearing last week, Roof alluded to a piece of evidence that he thought had been suppressed. He was told it had not, though prosecutors and the judge steered clear of describing the item in question.

Roof’s prime concern, however, has been keeping the jury from learning about his mental health and family history. That appears to be at the heart of his decision to sideline his top-flight, government-funded defense team. He said as much during last week’s conference, telling U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel that unsealing records of a prior competency review hearing in his case “kind of defeats the whole purpose of me representing myself.”

Gergel told Roof he must weigh his privacy concerns against the public's right to know full details about the how the case was handled. The judge, however, has indicated he plans to release at least some details about the most recent competency hearing - held Monday - after the trial has concluded. 

Distaste for psychology

Following his arrest the day after the shooting, Roof freely confessed to the killings and detailed his motivations for carrying out the massacre. But he has remained fiercely guarded about his psychological background.

In a journal found in Roof’s bedroom after the shooting, he outlined his many grievances against black people and other minorities, and shared his distrust of the mental health profession.

“I want to say that I am morally opposed to psychology,” he stated. “It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”

From serial killer Ted Bundy to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a number of high-profile murderers over the years have resisted their attorneys' efforts to portray them as mentally ill. Many hold extreme views due to delusions caused by an illness. But they cannot see that they are ill because the delusions seem so real. Those with violent ideologies often see a psychological explanation for their actions as an attempt to dilute the message to which they cling, experts have said.

During the first phase of the trial, lead defense attorney David Bruck repeatedly tried to elicit testimony or make observations that raised questions about Roof’s state of mind, drawing warnings from the judge that this ground was to be covered during the penalty phase. But Bruck knew he likely would be sidelined by that point, relegated to an advisory status as standby counsel.

In his closing argument, Bruck implored the jury to look deeper and examine why a troubled young man who had soaked up online hate would see the murdering of innocents as an appropriate remedy to perceived injustices.

Miller Shealy, a former state and federal prosecutor who teaches at Charleston School of Law, said Bruck would almost certainly continue to plow this ground during the penalty phase, just as he did many years ago while representing Susan Smith, a Union mother who drowned her two sons in 1994.

Though Smith was not an ideological killer like Roof, both were found competent to stand trial with prosecutors pushing for the death penalty, Shealy said. In Smith’s case, Bruck was able to introduce evidence that mental health issues impaired her judgment. In the end, she received a life sentence.

A mental health defense is really the only option for Roof at this point, Shealy said, asking jurors to examine the outrageousness of his actions and what that says about his state of mind.

“One has to pause and say, ‘This is aberrant behavior in the extreme. This is completely off the wall walking into a church and killing nine people at a Bible study,’” he said. “This is not the act of a person playing with all of their mental faculties in order.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556 or follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.