The federal judge in the Dylann Roof murder trial postponed jury selection Monday after a last-minute and unusual closed door meeting between the judge, Roof and Roof’s defense team.
Neither defense lawyers nor federal prosecutors objected to Judge Richard Gergel closing a hearing that lasted about 90 minutes.
However, lead prosecutor Jay Richardson told Gergel that relatives of the victims in the June 2015 church shootings wanted to express their “frustration” at the unexpected delay in picking a jury. The 40-50 relatives and victims’ friends, who were at the courthouse, wanted to attend Monday’s closed hearing, Richardson said.
Gergel told a packed courtroom of media, public and relatives of the nine people Roof is accused of killing that an emergency concerning Roof had come up. Roof was in the courtroom, dressed in a two-tone grey jail jump suit. He said nothing but looked composed and serious.
Reporters from The State newspaper, the Post & Courier, Reuters and WCSC-TV asked Gergel to keep the hearing open and at least provide a transcript as soon as possible. But Gergel stood by his decision to hold an emergency closed hearing.
But the reporters’ requests for openness prompted Gergel to further explain his position and elicited a pledge from the judge to make a transcript available as soon as possible when it would not conflict with Roof’s right to a fair trial.
“I greatly respect the public’s right to know,” Gergel said. “We will be transcribing everything.”
The issue came up at the last minute, Gergel said. Roof’s right to a fair trial, an impartial jury and attorney-client privilege issues prompted him to close the hearing, he said.
“Believe me, there was no other alternative. ... I will release as much information as soon as I can,” the judge said. By late Monday, two sealed documents and a sealed order were filed with the court, according to the federal court data base.
Roof, 22, of the Columbia area, is charged with various hate crimes and weapons violations connected with the slayings of nine African-Americans at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston in June 2015.
Roof is a self-avowed white supremacist whom prosecutors say targeted his victims because of their race and in hopes of starting a race war.
According to Roof attorneys, Roof will plead guilty and accept life without parole if prosecutors stop seeking the death penalty.
Jury selection, which is expected to take weeks, was supposed to begin Monday morning. Gergel said it will now begin Wednesday.
Opening arguments may not start for weeks. No court will be held Tuesday, Election Day, or Friday, Veterans Day.