Crime & Courts

Roof jury selection under way in federal death penalty trial

Opening day of Dylann Roof jury selection in federal court in Charleston. Roof sits at the defense table on left side of drawing, under the American flag. Federal prosecutors are on the right. Judge Richard Gergel is in the middle.
Opening day of Dylann Roof jury selection in federal court in Charleston. Roof sits at the defense table on left side of drawing, under the American flag. Federal prosecutors are on the right. Judge Richard Gergel is in the middle. Pastel drawing by Robert Maniscalco

The first of some 3,000 potential jurors in the Dylan Roof death penalty trial began reporting Monday to federal court in Charleston.

Jurors were summoned, some 80 at a time, before U.S. Judge Richard Gergel, whose questions were aimed at weeding out those who cannot serve or will not serve for reasons such as being over 70, having no one else to care for young children or who are opposed to the death penalty.

Roof, 22, a self-proclaimed white supremacist from Columbia, is charged with federal hate crimes in connection with the June 2015 slayings of nine African-Americans.

The nine were attending evening Bible study at “Mother” Emanuel AME church.

Roof has said he will plead guilty if federal prosecutors give up their bid to seek the death penalty.

Of the first 80 prospective jurors in court on this morning, some 90 percent were white. Nine were black. All were somber.

Of the 3,000 summoned for initial jury screening, 23 percent are black, 72.8 percent white and 1.47 percent are Hispanic. Twelve are Native American and 31 are Asian.

Initial jury selection is taking place in a small courtroom in an old federal courthouse. It has about 80 seats, nearly all of which were taken up Monday by prospective jurors.

Gergel allowed a sketch artist along with one pool print reporter to sit in the courtroom.

Other journalists and members of the public watched the proceedings on a flat-screen television in a nearby courtroom. Unlike state court, no cameras or tape recorders are allowed. The in-court proceedings in this story were furnished by pool reporters.

When prospective jurors were out of the room, Roof was animated, smiling and chatting with his attorneys.

“However, once the people who might decide his fate arrived, he stared emotionless at his lap, peering up only a few times throughout the morning panel,” the pool reporter wrote.

In numerous pretrial hearings, Roof has waived his right to be present.

During the morning, Gergel excused two white teachers. He also excused one white man who cared for a spouse with a severe health ailment and excused one black man who said service would be highly detrimental to his business. In the afternoon, Gergel dismissed an emergency worker, a woman who needed to take care of her child and three men whose positions were essential to their businesses.

For much of the morning, Roof stared down at his defense table. He wore striped jail garb then but switched to a blue long-sleeved sweater with grey slacks later.

Roof’s case is set to be one of the most sensational criminal trials ever in South Carolina due to the multiple killings and the racial dimensions.

Underscoring the emotionalism of the upcoming trial and the effect of publicity, Gergel has ordered dozens of pretrial documents dealing with yet-unpublicized evidence to be kept secret. He has said he fears publicizing the inflammatory contents may taint the jury pool.

Gergel told prospective jurors not to discuss or research the case. “No Googling,” he said.

Prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty against Roof on state murder charges. That trial won’t begin until next year.

Monday’s proceeding in federal court was the opening day in a screening process designed to ultimately produce a smaller pool of some 700 qualified prospective jurors. The actual trial will not start until late November or early December. If the trial goes through Christmas, court will shut down and resume after Jan. 1.

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