A competency hearing to determine whether the man convicted last month of killing nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church, can continue to serve as his own attorney will be closed to the public, the judge overseeing the death penalty case ruled Monday morning.
The pervasiveness of social media as well as Roof’s right to a fair trial were factors in the decision of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel, who said he would be compelled to sequester the federal jury if he allowed the public and press to attend the hearing.
Noting the “saturation in coverage,” Gergel said jurors can be inadvertently exposed to new information in the case while shopping at the grocery store or driving a car.
“I can’t walk down the street without hearing people talk about this case,” he said.
Roof, convicted of 33 federal counts in the June 2015 attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, last week told the court he planned to offer an opening statement in the sentencing phase of the trial, but would offer no evidence and call no witnesses in his defense. The 22-year-old defendant appeared at a hearing to determine whether the hearing should be closed wearing a jail jumpsuit, handcuffs and leg shackles.
That public announcement prompted his defense attorney, David Bruck, now in the role of standby counselor, to request a competency hearing to determine whether Roof has the capacity to represent himself.
“This defendant’s announcement (on Wednesday) that he will not defend himself against the death penalty — following a government presentation that is expected to involve more than 38 additional witnesses and hundreds more exhibits — raises in especially stark fashion the question of whether the defendant is actually unable to defend himself,” Bruck wrote in a motion regarding the Monday hearing.
Gergel granted the motion, and Roof was examined for five hours over the weekend by Dr. James C. Ballenger, a forensic psychiatrist based in Charleston.
Ballenger’s examination of Roof is the second in as many months. In November, the psychiatrist examined Roof after Bruck and the defense team asked for a competency hearing as jury selection was set to begin.
That move came after Roof sought to dismiss his team of four counselors who together offer nearly a century in death-penalty litigation experience. They had sought to offer a mental health defense, one that Roof blocked shortly after becoming his own lawyer.
Source: USA TODAY | Tonya Maxwell