Judge won’t release hearing transcripts, after ruling Roof is mentally fit to stand trial

Dylann Roof was arrested in Shelby, N.C., the day after nine parishioners, including pastor Clementa Pinckney, were shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Dylann Roof was arrested in Shelby, N.C., the day after nine parishioners, including pastor Clementa Pinckney, were shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. File photograph

A federal judge ruled Friday that alleged Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof is mentally competent to stand trial.

Jury selection is expected to head into the questioning phase in federal court in Charleston on Monday, according to U.S. Judge Richard Gergel’s order.

The decision comes after two days of closed-door competency hearings, during which Gergel received “testimony and voluminous documents.” Testimony came from court-appointed examiner James Ballenger – who assessed Roof’s competency – four witnesses and the sworn statements of three others.

To be found competent, Roof needed the “capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense,” the order said.

Roof, 22, a self-described white supremacist from the Columbia area, is accused of driving to Charleston to kill African-Americans to “incite racial tensions across the nation.” Roof is charged with killing nine people, including church pastor state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

The competency hearings were closed to the public, despite the opposition of the Associated Press, National Public Radio, The State Media Co., as well as Charleston’s Post & Courier newspaper and WCSC-TV. More than a half-dozen African-American survivors and relatives of victims of the June 2015 massacre at historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, and federal prosecutors also called for the hearings to be open.

Gergel refused, saying Roof’s right to a fair trial and getting an impartial jury trumped the public’s right to have testimony heard in open court.

He sealed the documents that contained information he used to rule Roof was competent to stand trial, making the same argument. Gergel also said that the transcripts of the competency hearing would remain sealed “at this time,” despite previously stating he would release a censored transcript with portions that didn’t affect Roof’s rights.

Former U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said he had faith Gergel understood the gravity of the public’s right to know but had to balance that with Roof’s ability to get a fair trial.

“The fear is, for those that take the rule of law seriously, that if the information about what transpired over the last two days is published on the eve of trial, that Dylann Roof will be unable to receive a fair trial,” Nettles said. “They already have a herculean task in finding a truly non-biased jury given the gravity of what’s happened and the justifiably massive amount of coverage it has received.”

Jury selection was originally supposed to begin in earnest Nov. 7, but Roof’s lawyers, led by anti-death penalty lawyer David Bruck, surprised the judge and prosecutors on that morning by bringing up the issue of mental competence.

At that point, Gergel told the court audience, he had no choice but instantly to order an independent psychiatric evaluation of Roof – even though it delayed jury selection – or risk having the results of the upcoming trial overturned on appeal.

Jury selection is expected to take three to four weeks, and Gergel has already indicated court will recess during the Christmas holiday period. That would push the start of trial testimony to January.

Picking 12 jurors is expected to be long and tedious. Jurors have to be capable of determining Roof’s guilt. If they find him guilty, jurors would then have to decide if Roof should be put to death or spend life in prison.

His lawyers have said in the past that Roof would would plead guilty if he could be sentenced to life in prison. They are expected to focus on saving Roof from the death penalty. S.C. lawyers have said Roof’s defense attorneys will search not only for a juror likely to vote for a life sentence but also a juror strong enough to stand up to other jurors.

In a federal death penalty case, a jury’s unanimous vote for death is binding. Gergel would then formally impose the sentence.

Gergel has ordered 20 prospective jurors from the Lowcountry to report for questioning each day until a total of 70 potential jurors are found to be qualified. The pool of potential jurors is of 512.

Staff writer John Monk contributed to story.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC