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Unsealed documents shed light on Dylann Roof's mental health issues

Dylann Roof faces second competency hearing (copy) (copy)

Dylann Roof poses with a Confederate flag in his bedroom in Eastover. The photo is among dozens Roof took to accompany an online racist manifesto he posted before the Emanuel AME Church massacre in June 2015. File

Newly unsealed court documents reveal that self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof had been diagnosed with a variety of mental health issues and exhibited odd behaviors before he stood trial for killing nine black worshipers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church. 

Psychiatric records from Roof's two competency hearings remain sealed, but some details about Roof's mental state and history can be found tucked away in other case filings that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel ordered released this week. 

In early December, defense attorneys asked the judge for certain accommodations to help the 22-year-old killer navigate his death penalty trial. In that motion, they referenced psychiatric disorders that an independent doctor had diagnosed during an earlier examination.

Dr. James Ballenger, a local forensic psychiatrist, found that Roof showed signs of “Social Anxiety Disorder, a Mixed Substance Abuse Disorder, a Schizoid Personality Disorder, depression by history, and a possible Autistic Spectrum Disorder," the court filing indicates.

Schizoid personality disorder is not schizophrenia and doesn’t cause delusional beliefs or hallucinations. Instead, those who suffer from it seem detached and distant, and they don’t want or enjoy close relationships with others, said Emily Gottfried, a forensic psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"They don't show a lot of outward emotion, and when you meet them they seem pretty flat," Gottfried said.

In contrast, those who suffer social anxiety disorder avoid relationships not out of a disinterest but rather an intense fear of being judged negatively. Autism can cause problems with social interactions as well and lead to rigid, fixed interests, she said.

These disorders fit a public portrait that has emerged of Roof, that of a loner who developed violent racist ideologies simply by reading white supremacist websites rather than through real-life interactions. Police also had found Roof in possession of Suboxone, a prescription drug used to treat opiate addiction, just a few months before the Emanuel shooting.

The newly unsealed motion also states that the defense "offered evidence of an autism diagnosis by a highly-qualified autism expert" at a closed-door hearing to determine whether Roof was competent to stand trial.

The competency hearing also included evidence that Roof had a high IQ "compromised by a significant discrepancy between his ability to comprehend and to process information and a poor working memory,” the motion said.

That competency hearing was held before testimony began in the guilt phase of Roof's trial in December. Gergel ruled then that Roof was competent to understand the charges and punishments he faced and could assist his attorneys with his case.

Defense attorneys argued that accommodations were necessary given the effects of his mental illness, including excessive focus on non-essential details, difficulty processing multiple simultaneous information sources, trouble shifting between subjects and activities, and an extreme need for predictability and routine. Roof's attorneys asked Gergel to provide more breaks, shorter court days, and permission to break as needed when Roof became overwhelmed with the volume of information.

“The accommodations requested here are modest, and they are necessary to ensure a fair trial for the defendant,” the motion said.

Gergel, however, ruled that there was no need to take measures, finding Roof capable of handling the trial schedule. He noted that Roof spoke at length and in detail on his own behalf after an 8-and-a-half-hour proceeding on the second day of the competency hearing.

"The Court has found Defendant mentally competent to stand trial, and, indeed, Defendant was extremely engaged during his two-day competency hearing," the judged states in his ruling. 

Roof was convicted in December of 33 federal offenses stemming from the June 17, 2015, church shooting. He chose to represent himself during the trial's penalty phase in an effort to block his legal team from introducing evidence about his mental health history. He told the jury that he had no mental illness and nothing to hide.

"There's nothing wrong with me," he said in his opening statement. 

Unsealed filings show his attorneys did not agree and labored to convince the judge that additional evidence about his mental health and behaviors should be presented to the jury. 

In a Dec. 13 motion, the defense sought to elicit testimony about Roof's withdrawal from society, extreme social isolation, depression, lack of coping skills and other factors.

The motion described one instance, uncovered by the FBI, in which Roof posted an anonymous ad on Craigslist seeking a companion to accompany him to Charleston for a historical tour. Dr. Thomas Hiers, a retired child psychologist, spotted the ad in February 2015 and was struck by its blunt message advising "No Jews, queers or (N-word)s." Hiers reached out to Roof through Craigslist, suggested that he expand his world view and offered to pay him a quarter for every TED talk he watched online, the motion stated.

Roof thanked Hiers for the suggestion but said he could not take his advice because "I am in bed, so depressed I cannot get out of bed. My life is wasted. I have no friends even though I am cool. I am going back to sleep," the motion states.

The motion also references statements from Roof's former co-workers at a Columbia-area pest control company who painted a picture of a distant, aloof and odd young man who spoke in a monotone and seldom smiled. Roof told one co-worker he had no hobbies and did nothing after work but sit in his bedroom. When the co-worker asked if he played video games, Roof replied: "No, I literally look at the walls."

Roof is currently housed in a protective custody cell at the Charleston County jail, awaiting his state trial on murder charges. He was sentenced to death last month after his conviction in federal court. He faces another potential death sentence in the state proceedings. No date has been set for that trial.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556 or follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a Connecticut native and a longtime crime reporter.

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