As legal questions in the Dylann Roof federal death penalty trial get thornier by the day, people who know presiding U.S. Judge Richard Gergel say he can handle whatever comes his way.
Gergel grew up in Columbia and practiced law here before becoming a federal judge six years ago. On Wednesday, he is expected to seat a 12-person jury and six alternates in Charleston. Opening arguments then will begin in what is sure to be one of the most historic and emotional South Carolina jury trials ever held.
Roof, 22, who also is from the Columbia area and a self-described white supremacist, will go on trial for the killings of nine African-Americans during a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston in June 2015.
Gergel, whose passion is South Carolina civil rights history, will preside over a trial for the ages, a trial that people around the world will be watching – not just because it brims with clashing legal and moral questions, but because it is fraught with all the violent baggage of the state’s racial past, from slavery to African-American struggles for equality.
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Those who know Gergel describe him as a passionate civil rights historian in his own right, with an incisive mind that goes to the core of issues. They say he’s more than up to the task.
“This moment is not too big for him (Gergel) – his entire career has prepared him for this,” says Carl Solomon, Gergel’s law partner for 13 years before Gergel became a judge. “He has always had a knack for dealing with complex issues and staying centered on what’s right.”
Former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who saw Gergel argue numerous complex cases before the state’s highest court, agrees. “I don’t know of anybody who was ever better prepared. His briefs were a model of comprehension and, yet, so readable and full of helpful information.”
Robert Rosen, a respected Charleston lawyer-historian, notes the Roof case will be tried in the same courthouse where the late Charleston federal Judge Waties Waring, who laid the groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous 1954 desegregation decision, heard South Carolina’s school desegregation case.
Gergel, Rosen said, is an admirer of Waring and was a force in the 2015 renaming of Charleston’s federal courthouse complex in Waring’s honor, and the 2014 erecting of a Waring statue in the complex’s courtyard.
“It sends chills up your spine,” Rosen said of the courtroom being the same.
“Richard knows the historical significance of this trial, but he is also very committed to protecting Dylann Roof’s civil liberties at all costs,” Rosen said. “He’s the right judge at the right time, in the right place.”
‘A BRILLIANT STRATEGIST’
Gergel, 62, is not granting interviews these days. He practiced law in the capital city for decades after graduating from Duke Law School in 1979.
From then until 2010, he was a plaintiff’s lawyer mostly in civil court who wasn’t afraid to take on rich and powerful businesses and institutions, often in cases where innocent people had been killed or suffered great harm.
“He’s a brilliant strategist, very sensitive to the needs of his clients,” said Helen Haskell, who was represented by Gergel in a case against the Medical University of South Carolina involving Haskell’s 15-year-old son, Lewis Blackman. Lewis died because of a medical error after a routine operation when the hospital for 30 hours didn’t notice he was bleeding internally, despite his complaints that he was in great pain.
One of Gergel’s biggest legal victories happened in 1999, when he was part of a coalition that fought and defeated the powerful $2 billion-a-year video poker industry, which had managed to install its highly addictive machines in stores and nightclubs across the state. In a major case ruled on by the state Supreme Court, Gergel was one of the lead lawyers representing people who’d been hurt by video poker addiction.
“If there could be any one person who could be thought of as the author of the demise of the video poker industry in both state and federal litigation, it’s Richard,” said Toal, chief justice at the time.
THE ROOF TRIAL
In 2009, Gergel’s nomination to a federal judgeship was backed by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
Gergel had a reputation as a moderate Democrat who worked with other moderates, such as former Gov. Dick Riley, who went on to become Secretary of Education with the Clinton administration. Gergel and his wife, Belinda, who had been a history professor at Columbia College, lived in downtown’s University Hill neighborhood. She held a nonpartisan seat on Columbia City Council.
In 2010, Gergel’s nomination was easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and he and Belinda moved to Charleston.
Since becoming judge, Gergel has handled any number of high-profile cases. They include:
▪ issuing a landmark 2014 decision that overturned the state constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage.
▪ ruling in 2011 that Jose Padilla, an American arrested as an enemy combatant and later convicted of plotting terrorism, had no right to sue American leaders on charges he was tortured while at a Navy brig in South Carolina.
▪ overturning this year one of 11th Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers’ death penalty convictions for the use of inflammatory racial references about an African-American defendant.
The Roof trial is perhaps Gergel’s highest-profile to date, one open to scrutiny now and in years to come, as every Gergel decision will likely be under a microscope and possibly appealed.
In recent days, Gergel had to deal with a clash between two major constitutional questions when Roof fired his elite team of court-appointed capital defense lawyers and said he wanted to represent himself.
Criminal defendants such as Roof have a constitutional right to choose how to present their defense. But because death penalty cases are the most complicated criminal cases of all, the law requires defendants in death penalty cases to have top-notch, death penalty experienced lawyers like Roof’s nationally known lawyer, David Bruck, whom Gergel appointed at taxpayer expense to represent Roof.
Faced with Roof’s decision to represent himself, Bruck and his legal team filed a motion with Gergel arguing that a ninth-grade dropout like Roof lacks the ability to conduct a competent defense.
On Sunday, Roof himself defused the issue by writing a letter to Gergel, asking the judge to reinstate his defense team for the trial’s first phase involving guilt or innocence. But Gergel might have to rule on the clash between Roof and his lawyers if the case goes into the penalty phase.
More than most judges, Gergel no doubt appreciates the historical dimensions of the Roof case, with its overtones of white supremacy and racial discrimination.
Gergel’s passion is South Carolina history, especially civil rights and race relations, from slavery to Jim Crow to the fight for equal rights.
In addition to Waring, Gergel has written about and promoted African-American and white heroes in civil rights. They include:
▪ Jonathan Jasper Wright, the state’s first African-American justice on the S.C. Supreme Court, who served during Reconstruction. Gergel and his wife, Belinda, were responsible for getting Wright’s portrait hung in the S.C. Supreme Court building.
▪ Matthew Perry, South Carolina’s most effective civil rights lawyer who won numerous victories in state and federal courts on civil rights. Perry, who died in 2011, later became the state’s first African-American federal judge. Gergel co-authored an essay on the meaning of Perry’s work in a book about Perry’s life.
Also, in the 1990s, Gergel worked on behalf of Columbia City Council to get the Confederate flag removed from the State House dome. When it looked like Gergel might win a victory in the Supreme Court to force the Legislature to take down the flag, the Legislature changed the law so it could keep the flag up, recalled Bob Coble, Columbia mayor at the time.
“He’s brilliant ... one of the two smartest people I ever met, and one of the nicest,” Coble said. “If he thought something was right, he didn’t hesitate.”
Longtime defense lawyer and death penalty expert Chris Adams of Charleston has been monitoring the Roof trial developments.
Although Gergel has been a judge six years and didn’t practice much criminal law as an attorney, Adams said Gergel already has shown, by hard work and preparation, he is up to the task of presiding over this trial.
“He’s very smart, and very well prepared,” Adams said. “You would think, appearing before him, that he has spent his whole career practicing criminal law.”
Gergel denies last-minute attempt to delay trial
Lawyers for Dylann Roof asked for a delay in picking a jury in his federal death penalty trial on Tuesday, less than a day before the trial’s start date.
Gergel ruled later in the day that jury selection will start as expected Wednesday morning in Charleston.
Lawyers said they feared that frustration over the mistrial declared Monday for former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager would spill into the church shooting case and cause jurors to be overly punitive with Roof. They wanted to reopen the selection process for the jury pool, which now consists of 67 people.
Gergel was adamant in moving ahead.
“The Court cannot respond to every breaking news story or development in the local court system by continuing a trial that has been scheduled since June 2016 or reopening comprehensive and completed voir dire. The Court must maintain the orderly process of criminal trials.”
Race plays a central role in both cases. Slager, who is white, shot and killed a fleeing, unarmed black driver. Roof is charged with killing nine parishioners at one of the South’s oldest African-American churches.
Staff and wire reports