Dylann Roof, the main suspect in the shooting deaths of nine parishioners of a black church in Charleston, was granted permission by a judge on Monday to represent himself in his upcoming trial. USA TODAY
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.
Roof filed a motion under seal Sunday to represent himself. Judge Richard Gergel of U.S. District Court granted the motion moments before jury selection began.
In a series of questions from Gergel, the self-described white supremacist acknowledged that he understands 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.
In questions and comments, Gergel noted that 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 prison jumpsuit. “You know I think that. You and I have talked about it.”
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.”
That woman was qualified later as a prospective juror. Before a break at about 10:40 a.m. ET, two others were qualified and four were struck, most of them for unwavering feelings on the death penalty.
Gergel also asked several jurors if race might affect their decision to be fair and impartial.
One potential juror, who said she is trained in ophthalmology, indicated on her questionnaire that she is opposed to the death penalty and would have a difficult time imposing it. In questioning from Gergel, she explained that she believes factors such as childhood issues could come into play.
“I’m Catholic, and I’m not sure I could decide on the death penalty. I believe in some extreme cases it may warrant that, but for me to take a life, I don’t know that I could do that,” she said. “There’s a whole lot more to it than, ‘Hey, he did this. He’s got to go.’ ”
The judge disqualified the woman as a potential juror, identified only as prospective juror No. 50, based on her struggles with the capital-punishment question, and asked prosecutors and Roof if they wanted to register objections.
“No,” Roof said.
The court is scheduled to question 20 prospective jurors each day — 10 in the morning and 10 in afternoon — from a remaining pool of 495 people drawn from a federal district that includes Charleston County and the 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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