Newly unsealed documents from Dylann Roof's hate crimes trial show a heated battle by his defense team to keep jurors from hearing him confess to killing nine people inside Charleston's Emanuel AME Church or seeing the racist manifesto he penned in jail after his arrest for the massacre.
Hundreds of pages of documents from the high-profile case — some dating back to the summer of 2015 — had remained sealed while attorneys prepared for a trial that ended last month with the self-avowed white supremacist receiving a death sentence for his crimes. With the trial over, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel issued an order late Tuesday opening dozens of hidden files to public view.
The filings reveal months of wrangling between federal prosecutors and defense attorneys over evidence in the case and a host of procedural issues. Not included in this batch of documents are psychiatric reports and motions regarding the 22-year-old killer's mental competency to stand trial. Gergel is still weighing how much of that information will enter the public domain and when.
Roof's mental state is referenced in vague terms in some of the newly released files, including a July motion by the defense asking the judge to suppress a confession Roof gave to FBI agents the day after the June 17, 2015, mass shooting.
His attorneys argued that Roof displayed "unusual behaviors" during his videotaped account that raised questions about his mental health and whether he could voluntarily consent to give a statement to investigators. They also maintained that he was "vulnerable to coercive tactics" employed by police due to his young age, his lack of sleep, and unspecified "mental health and neurological issues." They further accused investigators of over-reaching in searches of Roof's car and home to obtain evidence outside the bounds of search warrants.
Prosecutors balked at those arguments, and Gergel agreed. In a September ruling, the judge said Roof was treated well by police and "no reasonable person" would say he had been coerced. In fact, Gergel said, he spoke freely and willingly with investigators and seemed "relaxed, cordial, and even jovial" as he detailed his actions for the agents. The judge also found that investigators acted appropriately in searching Roof's home and car.
Defense attorneys also tried to keep prosecutors from introducing a journal Roof authored in his cell shortly after the shooting in which he doubled down on his racist beliefs and proclaimed that he had not shed a single tear for the people he killed. Defense attorneys argued that the journal, which built on racist themes Roof covered in an online manifesto posted hours before the church shooting, was protected by attorney-client privilege. They argued that Roof wrote it to explain his thoughts to them "and to guide future discussions between them regarding his thought processes."
"Any superficial resemblance to prior writings reflects only the defense team’s insistence that their client explain to them — in detail — his motivation to commit the offense," defense attorneys argued.
In a September motion, Roof's defense team also railed against "the significant entanglement between law enforcement and staff" at the Charleston County jail, alleging that state and federal authorities had enlisted detention center employees in investigating and gathering evidence to be used against him. They contended in this and other filings that jail staff scoured Roof's mail and surreptitiously searched his cell to gather evidence for investigators, violating his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizure in the process.
"The defendant is confined in an environment which has been rendered almost entirely transparent to the prosecution as it gathers evidence and builds its case against him," Roof's attorneys argued.
Gergel saw no merit in these arguments and sided with prosecutors. The judge ruled that an "incarcerated person has no reasonable expectation of privacy," and that jail staff appropriately searched his cell because they had had come across a letter from Roof to his sister in which he referenced writings about suicide contagion. They acted to ensure he was not a danger to himself and came across his drawings of hate symbols and his manifesto, he stated.
"No investigative or prosecutorial agency was involved with the decision to place Defendant on suicide watch or to search his cell," the judge wrote.
Gergel also dismissed the notion that Roof's writings were covered by attorney-client privilege, noting their similarity to his online racist rantings and the lack of any mention of legal issues, court dates or his defense team.
"Defendant's purpose in writing was not to assist counsel in the provision of legal services," Gergel stated. "There is no ambiguity regarding Defendant's purpose. Defendant clearly states his purpose is to expound his racist beliefs and motives for posterity."
Attorneys have until March 27 to object to unsealing other documents in the case, the most contentious being his psychiatric records. Questions about the killer's mental state have swirled for months, particularly after he chose to represent himself during the trial's penalty phase to prevent his attorneys from delving into his psychiatric history.
Gergel indicated that he closed competency hearings for Roof and sealed records on his psychiatric evaluations to ensure a fair trial. Roof wants those records to stay private. Gergel has said he must balance those wishes against the public's right to know and concerns about how the release of records might impact Roof's pending murder trial in state court. No date has been set for that proceeding, where he will face another potential death sentence.