A federal judge ruled Friday that alleged Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof is mentally competent to stand trial. Jury selection is expected to resume in federal court in Charleston Monday, according to U.S. Judge Richard Gergel’s order.
The decision comes after two days of closed-door competency hearings, where Gergel received “testimony and voluminous documents.” Those who testified included court-appointed examiner James Ballenger, who assessed Roof’s competency, four witnesses and the sworn statements by three others.
To be found competent, Roof needed the “capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense.”
Roof, 22, a self-described white supremacist from the Columbia area, is accused of driving to Charleston to kill African-Americans to “incite racial tensions across the nation.” Roof allegedly killed nine people, including church pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
The Associated Press, National Public Radio, The State Media Co., Charleston’s Post & Courier newspaper and WCSC-TV fought for the competency hearings to be public. More than half a dozen African-American survivors and relatives of victims of the June 2015 massacre at historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, and federal prosecutors also called on the hearings to be open.
Gergel refused, saying that Roof’s right to a fair trial and getting an impartial jury trumped those concerns. He sealed the documents that contained information he used to rule Roof was competent to stand trial, making the same argument. Gergel also sealed the transcripts of the competency hearing, despite previously stating he would release a censored transcript with portions that didn’t affect Roof’s rights.
Jury selection was originally supposed to begin Nov. 7, but Roof’s lawyers, led by anti-death penalty lawyer David Bruck, surprised the judge and prosecutors on that morning by bringing up the issue of mental competence. At that point, Gergel told the court audience, he had no choice but to instantly order an independent psychiatric evaluation of Roof _ even though it delayed jury selection _ or risk having the results of the upcoming trial overturned on appeal.
Jury selection is expected to take three to four weeks, and Gergel has already indicated court will recess during the Christmas holiday period. That would push the start of trial testimony to January.
Picking 12 jurors is expected to be long and tedious. Jurors have to be capable of determining Roof’s guilt. If they find him guilty, jurors would then have to decide if Roof should be put to death or spend life in prison.
Roof’s lawyers said in the past that Roof would plead guilty if he could be sentenced to life in prison. They are expected to focus on saving Roof from the death penalty. South Carolina lawyers have said Roof’s defense attorneys will search not only for a juror likely to vote for a life sentence but also a juror strong enough to stand up to other jurors.
In a federal death penalty case, a jury’s unanimous vote for death is binding. Gergel would then formally impose the sentence. Gergel has ordered 20 prospective jurors to report for questioning each day until a total of 70 potential jurors are found to be qualified. The pool of potential jurors is 512 people.