Dylann Roof's psychiatric exam was released

Dylann Roof enters a courtroom last year. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

By Grace Beahm gbeahm@postandcourier.com

Newly unsealed psychiatric reports about self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof portray a young killer more concerned with his reputation than the horrific, racially motivated crimes he committed or the punishments he faced. 

Dr. James Ballenger, who performed two court-ordered exams of Roof, wrote in one report that Roof considered the two options he faced, life in prison or death, to be equally bad.

"That is why preserving his reputation is the most important issue for him," Ballenger wrote.

Roof was convicted of all 33 charges he faced and sentenced to death in January. Authorities recently transferred him to an Indiana prison for federal death row inmates.

Roof told the psychiatrist that he preferred not to think about the fate that awaited him for gunning down nine black worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. 

"He stated clearly that his situation is like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people. He said the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret because he would have successfully done what he tried to do. When asked what he meant when he touched on the idea ‘I had to do it,’ he said he ‘had to’ because ‘no one else was going to do it,’ ” Ballenger wrote.

Roof added that if his reputation was ruined, his “life would be ruined.” 

The report was among a spate of documents U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel unsealed Wednesday related to Roof's mental health, including lengthy transcripts of two hearings held to determine if he was competent to stand trial.

The release of records came on the same day Gergel denied Roof’s request for a new trial. 

Roof and his legal team had argued that his actions didn't constitute interstate commerce — a necessary component for the federal prosecution — because the attack was planned and executed completely within South Carolina. They also argued that the charges for which Roof was convicted don't meet the definition of "crimes of violence" necessary under federal law to support death penalty convictions.

In a 31-page ruling, Gergel torpedoed both arguments and refused to throw out Roof’s convictions in favor of a new trial.

Gergel, who presided over the case, ordered Roof's first psychiatric exam in November after Roof penned a letter to prosecutors calling his own defense attorneys "the sneakiest group of people I have ever met" and their efforts to portray him as mentally ill "a lie." 

Roof had turned irate after realizing his attorneys planned to introduce evidence showing he had a crippling anxiety disorder, depression and autism. They wanted to demonstrate he suffered from delusions, including a false belief that testosterone had pooled on his left side and that his face was malformed, necessitating a bowl haircut to hide his forehead. Roof also declined to press charges when a fellow inmate assaulted him in the jail because his hair was pulled away from his forehead in a photograph taken afterward, the newly released documents show.

The reports also described Roof's belief that he was going to be rescued by white nationalists, pardoned and receive a high position such as governor in the post-revolution government.

Roof told Ballenger that his legal team was bent on using a trumped-up mental illness defense to discredit his actions and the mission behind them. He told him that he “would rather die” than use an autism defense because “it would ruin me” and “everybody would think I am a weirdo.”

Ballenger concluded that there was no evidence Roof was incompetent to stand trial or that he had developmental disabilities or mental illness that significantly influenced his decision making.

“In contrast, it appears that all of his decisions in the trial are dominated and driven by his primary racial prejudice and wish to preserve that as the sole rationale for his crimes and to protect his long term image and reputation as someone who has no mental illness," he wrote in his report.

Gergel then found Roof competent to stand trial, and Roof later opted to represent himself during the penalty phase of his trial so he could block his attorneys from introducing mental health evidence. At one point, he told the psychiatrist he would even try to stab his lead attorney if his legal team tried to buck his wishes to present "no defense, evidence, or exhibits," documents state.

Although Roof adamantly opposed introducing it, he agreed with Ballenger's diagnosis of social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. But he disputed a diagnosis of schizoid personality disorder, saying he had studied the psychiatric diagnostic manual and felt he was better described as having avoidant personality disorder.

“He stated that the best way he has found to explain his thinking is the analogy of his being a Jihadist,” Ballenger wrote.

At his Nov. 7 competency hearing, Roof took particular issue with experts' findings that he has autism. Gergel, however, explained that the defense team wanted to introduce the evidence with hopes of convincing a jury to spare his life.

"Your lawyers are trying to help you, Mr. Roof. They are trying to marshal a defense for you," Gergel said.

After Gergel prodded several times, Roof admitted why he opposed it: "It discredits the reason why I did the crime."

"Could you explain that to me, being labeled autistic is worse than death?" Gergel said.

"Because once you've got that label, there is no point in living anyway," Roof replied.

Instead, Roof worried that he would offend black people in the courtroom if he presented the defense he preferred: that his crime was a purely racist act. 

Ballenger, a forensic psychiatrist who was paid $680 an hour, met with Roof at the Charleston County detention center for nearly nine hours in November and on two more occasions ahead of a second competency hearing in January. During those sessions, Roof explained further his thoughts about the crimes he committed and his demeanor in court. For instance, Roof said no one would have paid attention if he'd gone to a black neighborhood and killed criminals, so he chose an act that was "even more clearly racist": killing innocents in a church, Ballenger stated.

Roof also discussed his odd demeanor in court, where he sat at the defense table at times for hours staring straight ahead, even during highly emotional testimony from the shooting's survivors.

He told the psychiatrist he felt he couldn't win no matter where he fixed his gaze.

“When he did stare at witnesses, the press commented that it was not right for him to look at victims. He stated that he feels it is not right for him to look at the victims because ‘I killed their son,’ etc. but if he looks down, he is also criticized for that," the report states.

Roof told the psychiatrist he found it funny that people demonized him as “evil" and said “he is not an evil person but perhaps his act was.” He also noted that he found his notoriety "funny" and "somewhat enjoyable,” Ballenger wrote.

Ballenger's reports also reveal that Roof began using marijuana at age 12 and progressed to alcohol and other drugs, including Xanax and Oxycodone. His grades plummeted from As to Fs, and he underwent outpatient marijuana and alcohol treatment for three months in 2009. During that time, he was “transiently suicidal.” The following year, Roof and a friend got so intoxicated that he had to be evaluated and treated at a hospital, Ballenger's report states.

During their second interview, the psychiatrist asked Roof if he was anxious about facing 30 or more loved ones of the people he killed, each detailing the impact his crimes had on their lives. Roof replied that he wasn’t worried because people would “get tired of it quickly.”

"He said he would ‘sort of like it.’ When questioned about that, he stated that because he ‘did not identify with them, he didn’t care.’ He stated that he could ‘appreciate and understand’ what they are feeling and that they are valid feelings, but using the analogy he used yesterday of the Palestinian in prison for shooting Israelis, he stated that he simply wouldn’t care," Ballenger wrote.

“Why would I be sorry for what I planned and did?” Ballenger quoted Roof as saying. “You don’t feel sorry for people that you don’t identify with."

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."