Federal officials to assess Roof’s mental health status

Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., on June 18, 2015. Federal prosecutors in the case against Roof have pushed back against a defense motion to dismiss the 33 federal indictments against him.

With opening statements set to begin Wednesday, a federal judge granted accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof's request to let his attorneys take the reins of his defense again during the guilt phase of his federal death penalty trial. Roof will act as his own attorney, however, during the penalty phase.

Survivors of the shooting and family members of the nine people gunned down in June 2015 packed one side of the courtroom Monday as Roof stood before the judge to reverse his earlier request to act as his own attorney during his entire hate crimes trial. Instead, he will represent himself only during the portion when jurors decide if he gets a death sentence or life in prison without parole.

"You are delegating to (defense attorneys) your strategic decisions in the guilt phase, and that is acceptable to you?" U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said to Roof.

"Yes," said Roof, still clad in his grey striped jail jumpsuit.

Gergel warned that Roof cannot change his mind again if he's unhappy with his attorneys during the guilt phase, the time when prosecutors must prove he committed hate and religious obstruction crimes. However, Roof can still ask to reappoint his attorneys during the penalty phase, and Gergel encouraged him to do so.

Renowned capital defense attorney David Bruck then stood to resume handling pretrial motions on Roof's behalf. The switch means that defense attorneys will offer opening statements Wednesday and question witnesses, including survivors of the racially motivated shooting, rather than Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist. 

Roof filed a motion Sunday asking Gergel to let the defense team represent him again during the guilt phase. In block print on lined notebook paper, Roof wrote to the judge: "I would like to ask if my lawyers can represent me for the guilt phase of the trial only. Can you let me have them back for the guilt phase, and then let me represent myself for the sentencing phase of the trial?"

Roof didn't indicate in his note or in court Monday why he wanted his attorneys to handle part of his defense but not all of it.

Last week, shortly after Gergel found Roof mentally competent to stand trial, Roof asked to represent himself just as jury selection was set to begin. Gergel called the move "strategically unwise" but said Roof had a constitutional right to do so.

Roof then acted as his own attorney throughout the questioning of potential jurors last week. For five days, he sat in court and asked short, often halting questions and made occasional objections after relegating his top-flight defense team to passing him handwritten notes.

Gergel's approval of the latest move gives Roof control over what evidence is presented on his behalf when the time comes for the defense to try to sway jurors to give him life in prison. During the penalty phase, defense attorneys typically offer evidence about a defendant's serious mental illness or other brain impairments, history of abuse, severe family upheaval and similar issues as possible mitigating factors in a killing.

The latest roller coaster of events in the case began last month when Roof's defense team raised questions that led Gergel to order a psychiatric evaluation. The nature of the questions and the exam's findings remains hidden in sealed court documents and a closed-door hearing after which Gergel found Roof competent to stand trial.

Roof then promptly asked to represent himself. Once he took the helm of his defense, he and his former attorneys disagreed over whether the lawyers should be able to present evidence on his behalf. Roof told Gergel that he didn't want the attorneys to be allowed to do so.

The defense team then filed a motion arguing the Eighth Amendment precludes allowing Roof to continue as his own attorney and block evidence from being introduced that could help spare him from the ultimate punishment. The 22-year-old is unprepared to handle the complexities of a 33-count death penalty case, the motion adds, and allowing him to proceed would deprive him of protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

However, Gergel called that argument “without merit” on Monday.

“The constitutional right of self-representation is not contingent on the complexity of the litigation. Obviously, Defendant is professionally unqualified to manage this litigation or any other litigation,” Gergel wrote in an order. The judge repeatedly has urged Roof to reconsider letting his defense team represent him in this fight for his life.

Gergel also berated defense attorneys for filing repeated motions that contradicted what Roof wanted and that “made a mockery of the concept of self-representation.”

Roof is accused of gunning down nine black worshipers at the historic Charleston church's Bible study after he sat with them for an hour. Authorities say he targeted his victims because of their race. The Eastover man faces charges including violations of hate crime laws and religious freedoms.

Defense attorneys have offered for Roof to plead guilty and serve life in prison without parole, but federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for 33 counts including hate crimes.

Roof also faces the death penalty in state court where authorities have charged him with nine counts of murder and other offenses. That trial is scheduled to begin in mid-January, and the tumultuous issues in federal court are impacting his state public defenders' ability to counsel him, those attorneys contend.

They filed a motion late Sunday asking Gergel to give them access to Roof's sealed competency evaluation and hearing transcript, among other documents, while still keeping them secret from the public. They argued that Gergel has excluded them from the federal proceedings and mental health information about their client, thereby infringing on their ability to properly advise him as that case also moves forward.

Gergel wrote in response, "State Counsel made this request notwithstanding their understanding that the Court has previously denied a request by Defendant's federal counsel to release similar materials to State Counsel."

The judge took up several other lingering pretrial motions as well on Monday.

For instance, he granted prosecutors' request to ban copying or posting online crime scene photos of the shooting victims. No media outlets or others objected to the request. 

"The nature of the crimes charged in the Indictment makes these depictions of the victims particularly susceptible to misuse by third parties. The defendant published an online manifesto outlining the racial motivation for his crimes, and making these images available for copying to those who might share his racist ideology would serve no purpose other than to cause pain to the victims and their families," prosecutors wrote.

Anyone watching the trial in the courtroom or overflow rooms still will see all of the crime scene photographs presented. Other exhibits admitted during the trial will be posted on the federal court system's database where the public can view them.

Meanwhile, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson sought to sequester witnesses. Bruck, however, said that he didn't object to the shooting survivors or Emanuel AME's clergy being allowed to observe in the courtroom even if they will be called to testify. He also asked that Roof's parents and grandparents be allowed to sit in the courtroom, and Gergel agreed. 

Once opening statements begin, testimony in the guilt phase should take just under two weeks, attorneys estimated. After that, Gergel will take a short break and begin the penalty phase of the trial. Under that timeline, the guilt phase would be completed before the winter holiday break and the penalty phase begun after the new year.

Contact Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."