Same judge to hear cases of church shooting suspect, friend

Dylann Roof appears at a court hearing on July 16. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel will oversee the federal case against Roof, as well as Roof’s friend who is accused of lying to authorities.

A federal judge's closed-door competency hearing to discuss a new psychiatric evaluation of church shooter Dylann Roof stretched through Monday and will resume Tuesday, a court official said.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel is presiding over the hearing to determine if the self-avowed white supremacist is competent to face his looming death penalty trial.

Last week, Gergel banned the public from the hearing despite pleas from many of the nine Emanuel AME Church shooting victims' families and the survivors who wanted to observe the proceedings. Several media outlets, including The Post and Courier, also objected to the closure.

Gergel said that once the competency hearing is completed, he would release a public order stating whether he has found Roof competent to stand trial, although he did not say when he would do so. 

The judge also pledged to review a transcript of the hearing and release portions that don't need to be kept confidential. His staff, he added, will work through the Thanksgiving holiday to complete those tasks.

At the competency hearing, attorneys had planned to discuss a new court-appointed psychiatric examiner's report, which relied heavily on interviews with Roof. Gergel said last week that the report contains sensitive details that, if revealed, could threaten Roof's rights to a fair trial and impartial jury, particularly given the jury hasn't been selected.

New questions about Roof's mental state arose two weeks ago, just minutes before jury selection was set to begin. After defense attorneys filed a sealed motion, Gergel found reason to believe Roof might suffer a "mental disease or defect" that rendered him unable to assist properly in his defense or to grasp the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, as the law requires. Gergel ordered an evaluation, which was completed last week.

Roof, 22, is accused of gunning down nine worshipers during the Charleston church's Bible study in June 2015. Authorities say he targeted his victims because they were black. In all, the Eastover man faces 33 federal charges, including violations of hate crime laws and religious freedoms.

If Gergel finds Roof competent to stand trial, jury selection is scheduled to begin Nov. 28. If Gergel finds the killer incompetent, he could send Roof to a prison psychiatric facility. The staff there would work to restore Roof's competency so he could face his trial.

Roof has offered to plead guilty and serve life in prison, but federal authorities are seeking the death penalty.

Meanwhile, he also faces the death penalty in state court. That trial is scheduled to begin in mid-January.

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."

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