CHARLESTON, S.C. — Against the advice of a federal judge, accused church shooter Dylann Storm Roof will represent himself in a death penalty trial that began Monday.
His three court-appointed lawyers filed a motion Sunday saying that the 22-year-old wanted to discharge them and represent himself. Judge Richard Gergel of U.S. District Court granted the motion moments before jury selection began though he called the self-described white supremacist's decision "strategically unwise."
In a series of questions from Gergel, Roof acknowledged that he understood the gravity of the 33 charges against him stemming from the June 2015 shooting deaths of nine black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in this South Carolina city.
Questioning from Gergel lasted less than 10 minutes with Roof usually providing one-word answers — a “yes” when asked if he understood he would be performing in a federal courtroom, a “no” when asked if he had been coerced.
Self-representation in criminal cases, particularly high-stakes matters, is widely viewed as an exercise in poor judgment, said Eric Muller, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Defendants typically are not versed in the many rules governing criminal cases, such as challenging a court venue or items that may have been seized illegally.
“A layperson typically knows none of these crucial things and is therefore in a terrible position to protect himself,” Muller said.
One well-known example of a defendant serving as his own attorney is Colin Ferguson, who killed six people in a 1993 shooting on the Long Island Rail Road, Muller said. Ferguson’s bizarre lines of questioning marked the proceedings, and he was sentenced to multiple terms that ensure he will not leave prison.
In acting as his own counsel, Roof can directly cross-examine witnesses. If the three survivors of the attack, one of them a girl was who 11 at the time, take the stand, he also would be able to question them.
“The trial judge will have discretion to shape the way in which Roof would handle himself on cross-examination, but there’s no way to prevent the fact (and traumatizing spectacle) of an alleged shooter interrogating his victims,” Muller wrote in email.
Gergel noted that the lawyers representing Roof are experienced capital defenders who have legal expertise that would benefit him.
“I think it is wise for you to be represented by counsel and to get the benefit of that experience,” Gergel said to Roof, who stood before him wearing a white and blue-gray jumpsuit of the Charleston County jail. “You know I think that. You and I have talked about it.”
Because of conversations with Roof and interacting with him in court, Gergel said he believed that Roof has the capacity to represent himself.
Gergel further ordered that Roof’s existing defense team act as standby counsel and then asked the defendant whether he would like those lawyers to sit at the defense tables or in seats behind him.
Roof paused for a moment, raising his left hand to his temple in a gesture of thought, then said, “Umm, at the table.”
With that, Gergel asked lawyer David Bruck, the former lead counsel for Roof who has vast experience in defending death-penalty cases, to shift one seat over, ceding that top spot to Roof.
A panel of 10 potential jurors entered the courtroom minutes later, all of them white and appearing to be at least 50 years old. Eight were women.
Gergel addressed the group briefly, telling them he would be delving into a questionnaire they filled out and might be asking them individually to elaborate on their opinions on the death penalty. He asked that they answer honestly and stressed that any questions about capital punishment should not reflect on guilt.
He also stressed that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. All but one, a woman who is a schoolteacher, was asked to leave so Gergel could question each one individually.
The woman had noted on her questionnaire that a sentence of life imprisonment sometimes can be worse than the death penalty. Gergel asked her to elaborate.
“I mean, all your freedoms are gone,” she said. “I mean, you’re a number and you always have to look behind your back.”
By the lunch recess, the teacher and two other women were qualified as jurors. Seven others were struck for cause, most of them for their unwavering feelings on the death penalty.
Gergel also asked several jurors if race might affect their decision to be fair and impartial.
After the lunch break, four more jurors were qualified, three of them white women and one a white man.
Roof typically said little but weighed in after one prospective panelist, a black man who was the only African American summoned for the day’s proceedings, was questioned.
The man indicated he believed the death penalty always should be imposed in homicide cases, an overly strong position that the judge said, after asking the man to step out of the courtroom, should disqualify him for jury service.
Prosecutors asked that the man be further questioned. Roof asked that the man be disqualified.
“I have no additional questions, but at this point I think he should be struck,” Roof said.
Another woman, who said her “core belief” is that she doesn’t believe in the death penalty, was disqualified after reading in a newspaper that Roof offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.
Prospective jurors have been ordered to avoid news coverage. But the woman said despite her anti-death penalty stance, the story swayed her toward capital punishment in the case.
“To me, any of the sentences are horrific,” she said. “Whatever he wants, to me, that is the opposite of what he should have.”
The court is scheduled to question 24 prospective jurors Tuesday, a dozen in the morning and 12 more in the afternoon from a remaining pool of 495 people drawn from a local federal district that includes Charleston County and eight counties surrounding it.
Questioning will continue until the court qualifies 70 people as prospective panelists. From that group, prosecutors and the defense team will select 12 jurors and six alternates.
This phase of jury selection initially was set to begin Nov. 7 but was postponed after Gergel ordered Roof to undergo psychiatric evaluation based on a defense motion filed that morning. The issue that sparked the last-minute examination has not been disclosed.
In a later hearing, one that was closed to the public, Gergel ruled that Roof was competent to stand trial.
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