Judge: Roof competent to represent himself

A federal judge ruled Monday that Dylann Roof is mentally fit to represent himself during the sentencing phase of his hate crimes trial.

The day-long hearing was closed to the public despite the objections of several news outlets.

Details on the competency hearing will not be released until after the trail, said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel. However, several witnesses, including the psychiatrist who previously evaluated Roof, testified during Monday’s hearing.

“After fully considering all of the evidence presented, the court ruled from the bench that defendant remains competent to stand trial and self represent,” Gergel wrote in an order.

Roof, 22, has opted to represent himself during the sentencing phase of his death penalty trial for hate crimes in connection with the slaying of nine black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.

Roof was found guilty on all 33 counts on Dec. 15.

Gergel also granted a request by Roof to delay the start of the trial’s sentencing phase until Wednesday. In his order, Gergel said Roof asked for the delay because “he was required to devote a great portion of the prior days to the court examination and competency hearing.”

Roof had to undergo a mental health evaluation over the weekend after his attorneys filed a sealed motion on Dec. 29, challenging his mental competency. It was the second time Roof’s mental fitness has been challenged.

In November, Roof’s attorneys, led by renowned anti-death penalty lawyer David Bruck, questioned Roof’s mental competency. A hearing was conducted then over two days. Ultimately, Gergel found Roof competent to stand trial.

This latest challenge to Roof’s mental fitness came after Roof said last Wednesday that he would not offer any witnesses during his trial’s penalty phase, when jurors will decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison without parole.

Bruck, who represented Roof during the guilt phase of his trial, has said his client “may lack the mental capacity to assume the role of his own lawyer.”

During arguments Dec. 14, Bruck all but called Roof crazy, calling the gunman “abnormal,” “delusional,” “lost” and “mad.”

Bruck’s repeated attempts to flag Roof’s mental fitness throughout the trial’s guilt phase were rebuffed by Gergel, who said those issues have to be raised during the sentencing phase.

But Gergel’s ruling Monday sidelines Bruck to the role of standby counsel.

Experts theorize Roof has decided to represent himself during the sentencing phase to prevent his attorneys from introducing evidence that questions his mental competence at the time of the slayings.

During last Wednesday’s hearing, Roof objected to the eventual unsealing of testimony during his initial mental competency hearing. Roof argued if that testimony was unsealed, it would defeat the purpose of representing himself.

Gergel told Roof the need for secrecy ends once the trial is over. Gergel indicated Monday that he intends to make the information public when the trial ends despite earlier comments that he would pass it along sealed to a state court, where Roof still faces charges.

As he had done during the previous mental competency hearing, Gergel cited media coverage of Roof’s trial as one of several reasons to close Monday’s hearing to the public, excluding the press, and to keep its information temporarily sealed.

Media attorney Jay Bender argued Monday in favor of keeping the hearing open on behalf of The State newspaper, the Associated Press and several other local and national news organizations, including National Public Radio.

Bender cited the public’s right to know, especially members in the community who have been deeply affected by Roof’s actions, even if they were not personally victimized.

“I think that closing this hearing at this point is closing out the community from an important part of this process,” Bender said.

But Gergel opted to close the hearing. If the hearing were held in public, it would be nearly impossible — given today’s technology — to prevent the jury from finding out information jurors shouldn’t have been privy to before the end of the trial, Gergel said.

Gergel said he considered isolating the jury but felt that yanking jurors from their homes for the remainder of the trial would be too disruptive to their lives.

He also dismissed federal prosecutor Jay Richardson’s request that victims and family members of the nine slain in the shooting be allowed to attend the hearing under an order that they not share what was discussed in court.