The current mental status of accused Charleston church killer Dylann Roof has emerged as a key issue and may delay the start of his upcoming death penalty trial.
Legal papers on the U.S. District Court’s website made public Friday make it clear that defense and prosecution lawyers are wrangling over the issue of Roof’s mental competency.
Already, U.S. Judge Richard Gergel has made a preliminary finding that there “is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to stand trial ...,” according to unsealed documents from the defense team.
Gergel made that finding after a closed hearing Monday in Charleston, during which he heard from only Roof and his defense attorneys. Government prosecutors, who might have been able to argue the facts differently from Roof’s attorneys, were excluded from that hearing.
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Under the law, once a judge makes a preliminary finding of “reasonable cause” about a defendant’s mental fitness, the judge can appoint an independent medical evaluator to assess Roof. Gergel did just that.
A hearing during which Gergel could make a final decision on Roof’s mental competence is now scheduled for Wednesday in Charleston. The judge will also have the evaluator’s report by then.
If Gergel finds Roof is not competent, he is required by law to send him to a secure facility with a psychiatric unit until such time as he is competent to stand trial.
Under the law, a defendant must be able to understand the nature of the proceedings against him and to assist his lawyers in his own defense.
Although Roof was examined earlier this year and found mentally fit to stand trial, the matter of his competency now – on the eve of what is expected to be a four- to six-week trial – has only just emerged.
Roof, 22, is an avowed white supremacist from the Columbia area. He faces 33 charges including hate crimes in connection with the June 2015 Charleston church massacre in which nine African-Americans were killed execution-style. His lawyers have said he would plead guilty and be sentenced to life without parole if prosecutors drop their demand for the death penalty.
Defense lawyers want to close Wednesday’s hearing about Roof’s mental status.
“Any (open) competency hearing will pose equally grave threats to the defendant’s right to a fair trial, to a fair and impartial jury, and to the assistance of counsel,” defense lawyers wrote in a filing unsealed Friday.
However, prosecution lawyers argue Wednesday’s hearing should be open to the public and victims.
“The victims should not be held in the dark about the competency hearing,” the government argued. “The victims in this case have a right to know what is occurring in this case.”
“While the defendant does have a right to a fair trial, so too do the victims have a right to a fair trial, one that affords them access to the information and proceedings that address their experience ...,” the government argued.
Government lawyers also reminded Gergel that U.S. courts are traditionally open and there is “a strong presumption of open proceedings.”
Moreover, since the public already knows that Roof’s mental competence is an issue, “there is no sufficiently compelling interest in closing the hearing,” prosecutors wrote.
In any event, Roof’s trial could be headed into a legal quagmire, where what once looked like a speedy trial could be delayed indefinitely. Federal law pertaining to the rights of defendants with mental competence issues are exceedingly complex and offer avenues for appeals and delay, according to court filings.
Because it will be difficult to resolve Roof’s mental issues quickly, defense lawyers said, the trial and jury selection should be delayed.
“With a holiday coming up, we wish to avoid having to make any more last-minute requests for time to resolve the numerous issues of constitutional dimension that seem to be arising now virtually on a daily basis,” wrote Roof’s defense team, headed by noted anti-death penalty lawyer David Bruck.
Gergel had announced earlier this week he wanted to start jury selection on Nov. 21, the Monday the week of Thanksgiving.
But Bruck and his team wrote, “We suggest that the Court adopt a new schedule that avoids resuming jury selection on Nov. 21-22.”
Pushing the beginning jury selection, which is expected to take three to five weeks, to the week after Thanksgiving would mean testimony likely would not begin until January.
Gergel initially wanted to start jury selection Nov. 7. But at the last minute, Roof’s lawyers asked for and got a closed-court hearing to air Roof competency issues.
Jack Swerling, a Columbia defense lawyer who has tried a half-dozen death penalty cases, said it’s not unusual to have competency issues develop right before a trial and even during trial.
“If something happens where lawyers can get concerned about the defendant, the best thing to do is go ahead and get a competency evaluation,” Swerling said.