Is Dylann Roof trying to sabotage his own trial?

Dylann Roof has elected to represent himself during the sentencing phase of his federal trial related to the Charleston church shooting. Is he angling for life in prison or the death penalty?

Chuck Burton/AP/File
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., following his arrest in 2015.

A week after dismissing his attorneys, accused Charleston, S.C., church shooter Dylann Roof asked a judge to let them represent him in just the guilt phase of his federal trial, leading some analysts to wonder if he's trying to sabotage the sentencing stage and push a jury to give him the death penalty.

If so, that raises larger questions about the legal process and what is effectively state-assisted suicide.  

Mr. Roof, 22, faces charges related to killing nine members of the black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church while attending a Bible study group there in June 2015. The alleged crimes, which stem from murder to racially- and religiously-based hate crimes, have resulted in two trials: the current federal trial examining the shooting as a hate crime, and a state trial slated to begin next year, in which he faces murder charges. A guilty verdict in either could result in a death sentence.

The nature of Roof’s alleged crimes – and the fact that he’s nearly admitted his own guilt – shifts the trial’s focus from the guilt stage to the sentencing phase, and means the jury will likely focus more on whether his actions merit the death penalty than whether he’s responsible for the nine deaths. That fact makes Roof’s request puzzling, and some speculate that he may intend to advocate the death penalty during sentencing if found guilty.

If that’s the case, Roof would be far from the first defendant to do so. For decades, inmates have become “volunteers” for their own executions, waiving appeals and hastening the pace of the lengthy death row process. Whether inmates lose their will to live when handed a hefty sentence or later succumb to the mental toll that life in prison – or waiting on death row – often inflicts on them, around 10 percent of those executed in the past 40 years have either asked for their own execution or withdrawn from the appeals process voluntarily, leading to 141 deaths out of the past 1,400 executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The phenomenon has launched a debate as to what role the courts should play in steering individuals away from choosing death, and how they should allow them to properly come to terms with the punishment.

“When you look at people who choose to ask for death at trial, or people who waive their appeals and agree to be executed … some people say this is really state-assisted suicide, and some people say the person should have the autonomy and the choice to make their own decision,” John Blume, a Cornell Law School professor and director of the Death Penalty Project there, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

Roof, who defied Judge Richard Gergel's advice when he moved to dismiss his attorneys, submitted the new handwritten request on a piece of lined notebook paper in a motion filed Sunday.

“I would like to ask if my lawyers can represent me for the guilt phase of the trial only,” Roof wrote. “Can you let me have them back for the guilt phase, and then let me represent myself for the sentencing phase of the trial? If you would allow that, then that is what I would like to do.”

Judge Gergel said Monday that he would allow Roof's attorneys to represent him in the guilt phase, which begins Wednesday. He again urged Roof to rethink his decision to represent himself in the sentencing phase.

While some defendants wait until they've been sentenced to resign themselves to the death penalty, others act during the trial to swing the jury in the direction of capital punishment. Many of those who volunteer for execution bear a striking resemblance to the segment of the civilian population most likely to end their own life by suicide: white men with histories of substance abuse and mental illness. Still, substance abuse and neurological disorders are common among inmates on death row, and only a fraction fall into the volunteer category.

To distinguish between those suffering from mental illnesses and those who can see the heinous nature of their acts and believe the punishment fits the crime, the court should take care to examine an individual’s motivation in refusing appeals or asking for the penalty, Professor Blume says. The current lack of such proceedings could constitute an oversight on behalf of the court that threatens the justice system. Data show that more than 100 death row inmates were later exonerated of their crimes since 1973, a number nearly identical to those who volunteered in federal cases. Some of those later exonerated had previously expressed sentiments about their predicament similar to those in the "volunteer" category.

And it's not unusual, experts say, for those facing the death penalty to decide during the early days of their incarceration or even at trial if they'd prefer capital punishment over life behind bars.

"One thing that I think is striking is how early people decided they wanted to be executed," Meredith Martin Rountree, a visiting professor at Northwestern University specializing in criminal law, says of the inmates she studied in Texas who embodied the phenomenon, in an interview with the Monitor. "They use a lot of common cultural scripts to make these decisions. It’s within that – I’m doing it because of my religious beliefs, or because I’m remorseful – all of these things we accept as reasons. In the arc of that, we start minimizing mental illness."

But not all death-penalty volunteers get their requests granted. Many inmates sentenced to death see their punishments and court proceedings languish, or are eventually overturned. Of the more than 6,000 inmates sentenced to death by federal courts between 1973 and 2002, fewer than 900 were executed. A little more than 100, or about 1.7 percent, of those 6,000 fell into volunteer category, and only about 12 percent of those inmates were executed.

Many worried what Roof's dismissal of his attorneys might mean for the trial. By acting as his own attorney, he had the power to question survivors of family members of victims, and could also decline to present evidence related to his mental health. While Roof has been deemed competent to stand trial, meeting that bar in a federal court is low, and requires only that the defendant doesn’t suffer from any illness that makes him unable to assist in his defense or understand the case’s consequences.

The curious piece of Roof’s case stems from his initial agreement to plead guilty to the charges against him – if the death penalty was taken off the table. Insisting that it was necessary to pursue the harshest punishment against the heinous act, federal prosecutors refused to do so, and the case moved forward.

Now, the high-profile case is moving forward with Roof at the helm, who has the opportunity to exclude evidence from the trial related to his mental health. To many, it’s unclear exactly what Roof’s motives might be, but it is clear he wants to take control of the evidence presented in court.

That, experts say, can compromise the integrity of the trial.

“The jury is supposed to be able to make a reasonable assessment ... not just what he did, but they’re also supposed to hear everything about his life, background, mental impairments, anything traumatic that happened to him, so they can contextualize the offense in light of his entire life history and make an assessment of what punishment he deserves,” Blume says.

The same standard applies, he says, when convicted inmates give up on the appeals process, disregarding the checks put in place to ensure that defendants don’t receive sentences steeped in prejudice or passion on part of a jury.

“When we allow people to waive their appeals,” he adds, “I think that also casts some doubt on the capital punishment system.”

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