A hearing to determine whether Charleston church killer Dylann Roof is mentally fit to stand trial will continue Tuesday in federal court in Charleston.
The hearing began Monday behind closed doors. U.S. Judge Richard Gergel said last week that he hoped to decide on Roof’s competence after the hearing.
A criminal defendant must be able to understand and participate in legal proceedings.
Gergel may be wrestling with last-minute issues raised by Roof’s lawyers, led by veteran anti-death penalty attorney David Bruck.
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Four nonpublic documents were filed Monday, making it impossible to say if the material came from federal prosecutors or Roof’s lawyers. So far, 645 documents have been submitted, most of them private.
Roof’s competency hearing was closed to the public despite pleas to open it from more than a half-dozen African-American survivors and relatives of victims of the June 2015 massacre at historic Mother Emanuel AME Church. Media lawyers representing state and national news outlets including The State, The Greenville News, The Charleston Post & Courier, NPR and the AP, also had pushed to open Monday’s hearing. Federal prosecutors, too, asked that the hearing be open.
Gergel refused, saying that Roof’s right to a fair trial and getting an impartial jury trumped those concerns.
A federal indictment in the case alleges Roof, 22, a self-described white supremacist from the Columbia area, went to Charleston to kill African-Americans to “incite racial tensions across the nation.” Roof killed nine people, including church pastor state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Gergel said he didn’t want to close the hearing, but said Roof’s right to a fair trial were at stake, especially since a jury is about to be selected in a case already saturated with publicity.
Gergel said he would release a censored transcript of the hearing, opening those portions that don’t affect Roof’s rights.
The judge has said he would like jury selection for Roof’s trial to begin Monday, assuming Roof is found competent. However, as Roof’s mental competency hearing will move into its second day Tuesday, it is open to question whether Gergel can hold to the Nov. 28 date. Jury selection was to begin Nov. 7.
Meanwhile, Gov. Nikki Haley is asking South Carolinians to pray for healing amid two racially-charged murder trials and recovery from Hurricane Matthew.
She is urging places of worship to hold a prayer vigil at noon Tuesday. She also wants church bells to be rung statewide.
The governor says she will be at Mother Emanuel AME Church.
Besides the Roof hearing, the trial of former North Charleston officer Michael Slager is under way. He’s accused of fatally shooting a black motorist in the back as he fled.
Haley says, “we don’t know what’s going to come out of these murder trials.”
She says it’s important “we all come together” and reflect.