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Judge to keep Dylann Roof competency hearing closed despite pleas from victims' families

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Jury issues still being worked out in federal trial of Dylann Roof

Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., on June 18, 2015. His federal death penalty trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 7. His capital state trial is set to begin Jan. 17.

Relatives of the nine people killed in the Emanuel AME Church massacre urged a judge Thursday to reconsider his decision banning them from Dylann Roof's competency hearing next week. 

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, however, held fast to his decision to close the hearing. Gergel found substantial risk that making the details of Roof's new psychiatric evaluation public would threaten the killer's right to a fair trial and an impartial jury.

Several victims' families, the husbands of two of the shooting survivors and Emanuel's pastor lined up in a federal courtroom to press Gergel to consider their pain and rights to observe the proceedings addressing the man who gunned down their loved ones.

"It would be unfair for us not to be there," said Tyrone Sanders, standing beside his wife, Felicia, who survived the shooting with their 11-year-old granddaughter by playing dead. Their son, Tywanza, was killed. "We've lost the greatest portion," Sanders added.

Gergel insisted repeatedly their suffering weighed heavily on him and that he didn't want to close the hearing. However, he added he could find no other way to protect Roof's rights other than by doing so. 

"This is an unusual case, and we want to get it right," Gergel said.

At the competency hearing scheduled for Monday, attorneys will discuss a psychiatric examination of Roof delivered  Tuesday that relied heavily on interviews with the self-avowed white supremacist. Gergel said it contains sensitive details that, if revealed, could threaten Roof's rights, particularly before a jury is selected.

"It is not a normal examiner's report," Gergel cautioned. "I'm telling you that."

The judge pledged to review a transcript of the competency hearing and release portions  that don't need to be kept confidential. He also plans to release a public order stating whether he has found Roof competent to stand trial. 

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

Defense attorneys for Roof, who was not at Thursday's hearing, requested the competency hearing be closed. 

The Post and Courier and other news outlets objected to the closure, contending the proceedings should be be closed only under the most extreme circumstances.  

If Gergel finds Roof is incompetent to stand trial, he could send Roof to a prison psychiatric facility. If he finds Roof competent, jury selection would resume Nov. 28. 

New questions about Roof's mental state arose last week as 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. That led to several delays in jury selection as Gergel awaited the psychiatric evaluation, performed by a court-appointed examiner.

Dan Simmons Jr., whose father died in the shooting, described the frustration of driving back and forth from Virginia only to find out repeatedly that jury selection had been delayed and the families cannot attend Roof's competency hearing.

The Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of Emanuel AME, asked the judge to consider the legal issues "but also the anxiety the families continue to go through as well as the church. When we're prepared mentally, spiritually and physically, we hear about another delay. The delays create the impression that perhaps something else is afoot."

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

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