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Dylann Roof won't present mental health evidence in penalty phase of trial

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One day after his conviction for killing nine worshipers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, Dylann Roof informed a federal judge in a handwritten note Friday that he won't present mental health evidence during the penalty phase of his trial, set to begin Jan. 3. 

His attorneys had hoped to present such evidence in an effort to spare him a death sentence. But Roof, who has resumed representing himself, penned a two-sentence letter on lined notebook paper to U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel that reads, "I, Dylann Roof, withdraw the notice relating to presenting mental health mitigation through expert testimony. I will not be calling mental health experts or presenting mental health evidence."

In July, Roof's defense attorneys indicated that they planned to present testimony and documentation of a “mental disease or defect or any other mental condition.” However, that was before Roof opted to act as his own attorney, taking the reins of his defense after his conviction mid-day Thursday.

The convicted killer had 24 hours after being convicted on all 33 federal counts of hate crimes, religious obstruction and firearms charges to notify Gergel with certainty whether he intended to introduce mental health evidence during the penalty phase of his trial. That's when jurors will decide whether he should be executed or spend his life in prison for gunning down nine black parishioners in June 2015. 

In the weeks since Roof requested to act as his own attorney, speculation has swirled over whether he did so to exclude evidence about a serious mental illness. Experts who have dealt with federal death penalty cases in which defendants represented themselves said Roof likely either doesn't believe evidence his attorneys wanted to present showing he has an illness or doesn't want his message of white supremacy diluted as the rantings of a man with a serious psychiatric disorder. 

Dr. Xavier Amador, a clinical psychologist who has worked on 70 death penalty cases, said he had yet to see a defendant represent himself who didn't have a schizoeffective disorder, including the paranoid schizophrenia he thinks Roof suffers. Those defendants lacked an ability to realize that they were, in fact, impacted by serious mental illness and instead adamantly opposed presenting evidence from mental health professionals. 

“They’re convinced nothing is wrong with them,” Amador said. 

After a week of heart-rending and chilling testimony during the guilt phase of his trial, jurors took less than two hours to convict Roof Thursday on every count federal authorities brought against him. Just minutes after the verdicts were read, Roof reiterated his earlier request to act as his own attorney for the duration of his trial.

Gergel repeatedly has urged Roof to reconsider, calling it "strategically unwise" and a "bad decision." The judge pointed to the defense team's considerable expertise. Lead defense attorney David Bruck is widely placed among the nation's premier capital defense attorneys. 

On Thursday, Gergel encouraged Roof to spend the holidays listening to his family and attorneys who want him to let the seasoned defense team handle the penalty phase, where he faces the ultimate punishment. However, the judge also noted that Roof has a constitutional right to act as his own attorney and is competent to make that decision.

That leaves the 22-year-old high school dropout to lead the fight for his life from here. And if Roof makes a bad choice in representing himself, “There’s no legal remedy for that. The defendant has made his bed so to speak and is stuck with it,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Bruck represented Roof during the guilt phase of the trial and tried repeatedly to interject questions and comments related to Roof's state of mind during the rampage at Emanuel AME. In his closing arguments, Bruck painted Roof as delusional and suicidal, a disaffected loner who didn't grow up in a racist home yet became obsessed with a violent ideology based almost entirely on white supremacist internet sites.

However, Bruck's words marked the last time jurors likely will hear from him given he's now relegated to the role of mere legal adviser. He cannot speak to jurors or introduce evidence on Roof's behalf.

The penalty phase, coming next, offers prosecutors and the defense a chance to present evidence showing why jurors should give a defendant life in prison or death sentence. Prosecutors will call loved ones of the nine victims to describe their deceased loves ones and detail the tremendous loss the killings have left behind to show why Roof should receive a death sentence.

Defense attorneys typically present mitigating evidence related to serious mental illness, histories of abuse, drug addiction and other factors aimed at showing why a convicted killer should be spared death and instead get a life sentence. However, Roof's note indicates jurors might not hear much, if any, of that type of evidence when they meet again.

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

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