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Dylann Roof's lawyers revive mental health defense in latest court papers

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Dylann Roof's psychiatric exam was released (copy) (copy) (copy)

Dylann Roof enters a courtroom in 2016. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

A rushed process, judicial overreach, essential evidence ignored — a recently filed court brief by attorneys representing convicted murderer Dylann Roof raises several questions about mental illness, his competence at trial and his death sentence for killing nine worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in 2015. 

During his trial, Roof sabotaged his lawyers' efforts to present evidence he suffered mental illness and autism because he feared it would mar his reputation. He represented himself during the penalty phase precisely to keep them from introducing such evidence.

He denied any claims that he suffered mental-health issues, and a mental-health professional brought in by the court determined he was competent to stand trial and conduct his own defense. The mental-health expert found it was Roof's racist ideology, not mental illness, that led him to kill nine people in hopes of starting a race war.

Roof's lawyers now argue that evaluation ignored crucial evidence of Roof's lifelong mental illnesses.

Their client's signature isn't attached to the brief, which was filed Jan. 28, more than two years after Roof first appealed his death sentence.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said the defense has the right to choose the strategy to overturn a conviction, even over the objections of a client. The ultimate decision rests with counsel, he said.

"You're not required to run everything past the client, or to get the client's approval on everything," Dunham said.

The full picture

Dunham said it's now up to the appellate court to determine if Roof's decisions are evidence of an underlying mental illness. Courts are "notoriously bad" at judging mental illness, he said, and in his opinion the judge in Roof's trial didn't consider the full history of Roof's mental illness.

Moving forward, the government can respond to the defense's brief with a brief of its own. After the defense replies to the brief, a schedule for oral arguments will likely be set. Drafting an opinion for a case this complicated will take months, Dunham said.

Whichever side loses is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. If Roof loses and the high court agrees with that decision, Roof can seek a habeas corpus hearing in which a federal court may agree to review his incarceration and look at new evidence, Dunham said. 

Chris Adams, a Charleston attorney specializing in death penalty cases, said it's possible Roof could now be on board with his fuller story being told. 

"It makes for an unfair proceeding when you have a person who isn't really interested in living, interested in telling his story," Adams said of Roof's trial, when he sidelined his legal team at crucial moments. "The jurors didn't get the full picture of Dylann Roof."

The defense team will be limited to what evidence is already on the record. Several competency reviews and psychiatric evaluations were conducted around the time of the trial, many of which contradict each other on whether Roof was competent to represent himself and if he showed signs of mental illness. Such evaluations are often done very quickly and with limited information, Adams said, calling into question the legitimacy of their findings.

If Roof rigged the case against himself to cover up mental health issues, Adams said, then the trial wasn't fair. 

"That's a real challenge, when somebody would rather be seen as sane and sentenced to death," Adams said.

Alexandra Yates, Roof's deputy federal public defender, said the team would not make any comment on the appeal. She would not say if Roof had consented to, or was cooperating with, the defense laid out in the brief.

His defense

The appeal's 321-page brief outlines a barrage of assertions that the proceedings were unconstitutional, saying that Congress had no right to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and that defendants' rights to represent themselves don't apply to capital cases.

Most of the brief centers on Roof’s mental state and the court’s handling of it, saying the court made missteps in calculating whether Roof was competent to stand trial and misinformed him of his right to do so.

The problems began with the experts hired to evaluate Roof, his attorneys argued. One expert spent months with Roof and indicated he had a born predisposition to schizophrenia-spectrum and autism-spectrum disorders and that his “racial awakening” may have been a sign of a psychotic-spectrum disorder. 

But that expert couldn’t make Roof’s trial date, leaving another expert to do the same work in eight days, with no time to review documentation of his past.

Relying on that assessment, the court decided Roof was competent to stand trial and to defend himself, which attorneys say he chose to do only because he wrongly believed that his counsel could ignore his wishes and argue that he was mentally ill.

“Roof’s primary goal wasn’t to avoid a death sentence, though he hoped he would,” his counsel wrote. “It was to prevent his attorneys from presenting mental-health evidence at trial.”

An uncooperative client

Up to this point, Roof has fought his counsel at every step in their attempts to use mental health as a defense. 

In a letter to prosecutors during the trial, he called his legal team "the sneakiest group of people I have ever met." 

His lawyers, led by attorney David Bruck, had planned to mount a defense based on Roof's mental health. He called the strategy a "lie" and later threatened to kill Bruck.

Since mental-health evidence would have been presented primarily to mitigate the sentence, his attorneys argued in the brief, he could have been allowed to represent himself in the sentencing phase after having counsel defend him in jury selection and the guilt phase. And, they said, attorneys should have been allowed to help him even when he took charge of his defense. But the court told him that self-representation was all-or-nothing.

“Based on that advice — which was wrong — Roof reluctantly went pro se,” the brief stated.

Roof requested new attorneys in September 2017 after filing his appeal, arguing Yates and the assistant federal public defender, Sapna Mirchandani, were his "political and biological enemies" because they are Jewish and Indian. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied his motion.

No matter what the appeals court rules, Roof and his lawyers have a long legal fight ahead. For the Charleston community, especially those directly affected by his killings, the claim that Dylann Roof was suffering from mental health issues on the day he killed nine people doesn't mitigate his actions.

"This is, of course, legally anyone’s right to do. It does not change the fact that he is, of course, guilty of carrying out a hate crime that has affected nine families, five survivors, the entire congregation of Emanuel, Charleston, the AME church and the world," said the Rev. Eric Manning, pastor of Emanuel AME Church.

"It will never change that the families offered an immense grace by offering forgiveness. Try as he may for any appeal, it will never change the facts," Manning said. "We will continue to solicit the community’s prayers as the church, the families and the survivors go through this season."

Gregory Yee contributed to this report.

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

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