As trial shifts to sentencing, Dylann Roof rejects best defense against death penalty

Convicted Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof has decided to represent himself in the sentencing phase of his federal hate crime trial, and plans to exclude any testimony from witnesses or evidence.

US District Court of South Carolina/Reuters
Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof is seen in this US District Court of South Carolina evidence photo, which was originally taken from Mr. Roof's personal website.

“Also I want [to] state that I am morally opposed to psychology. It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”  

The declaration is buried some 20 pages deep in Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof’s handwritten journal, which he kept in his car, scribbling bits about white supremacy and his desires to bring on a race war. Used as a piece of evidence to convict Mr. Roof of a race-based hate crime that involved shooting nine black parishioners during a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, the journal also holds clues as to why the young man may be acting in ways that could sabotage his chances of escaping the death penalty.

On Tuesday, Roof’s trial will shift into its second stage: the sentencing phase. While Roof allowed his attorneys to represent him during the federal trial, he will act as his own defense during this subsequent punishment proceedings, and said last week he does not intend to present any evidence or call witnesses during the proceedings, but will make an opening statement.

Experts and federal Judge Richard Gergel have repeatedly advised Roof against foregoing his legal counsel in either stage of his federal trial. But for more than a month, Roof has insisted on representing himself in the sentencing phase without explanation, prompting many to wonder if he intends to bar the use of testimony that would draw his mental health status into play or even steer his trial away from a life sentence, seeking the death penalty purposefully.

A jury convicted Roof of 33 charges of federal hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion, and firearms violations on Dec. 15. He will stand trial again later this year for murder, which violates a state statute.

He faces the death penalty in both trials, but had offered to enter a guilty plea if the death penalty was taken off the table. Federal prosecutors refused to cut a deal, opting to bring the harshest sentence against him for the heinous crime. 

While the court has deemed Roof competent to stand trial, that low bar requires only that he understand the proceedings and be capable of assisting in his defense, and it’s possible that a defendant like Roof could suffer from serious mental illness left unaddressed by professionals or the court – especially if he doesn't believe such conditions exist. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling allows judges to insist defendants use professional legal representation if they are “competent enough to stand trial but ... suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves,” but hasn’t been invoked.

Roof’s attorneys have argued that he should not be able to represent himself, but aside from calling the move “a bad idea,” Judge Gergel hasn’t moved to bar him from doing so.

Gergel said he would allow Roof to reconsider the decision up until the start of the sentencing phase. Working to defend him during the guilt phase, Roof’s lawyers did not dispute his role in the shootings, but did ask jurors to consider the motivational factors that could have led the 22-year-old to carry out the massacre, noting he might be delusional.  

But the legal team was not permitted to use evidence related to Roof’s mental state in the guilt phase, and did not call any witnesses during the deliberations. By taking control of the sentencing phase, he can continue to exclude those details. 

If Roof is trying to sabotage his own trial, he wouldn’t be the first to do so. For decades, some inmates have become “volunteers” for execution, either asking for the death penalty at trial or abandoning lengthy, involved appeal efforts and accepting their fate. Some 10 percent of inmates executed over the last 40 years have fallen into that category, accounting for 141 of the past 1,400 executions.

“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, previously told The Christian Science Monitor.

But allowing defendants to sway the trial in that direction robs the jury and court of due process, and could leave them with a punishment levied by a biased jury acting on prejudice or passion.

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

Other legal experts have raised concerns with Roof’s decision and the court’s hands-off approach that allows it, noting that mental health issues could become minimized in the proceedings.

“Whether or not they’re legally insane, there’s certainly something mentally wrong with them,” Peter Greenspun told The New York Times. He’s an attorney who represented John Allen Muhammad, who was convicted of killing more than 10 people in the 2002 Washington area sniper attacks, for parts of a capital murder trial in which Mr. Muhammad temporarily served as his own legal counsel. “To have a person like that make this kind of decision, it really calls into question, from a philosophical point of view, whether that person is in a position to understand their civil liberties.”

Experts say it’s unlikely Roof will be able to convince the jury to spare his life without evidence of mental illness. He could lament about the difficulties of life in federal prison or give anecdotal information about his childhood and life before the crime, but doing so would take a certain nuance and emotional awareness that he might not possess.

This work is really hard. It’s very technical, and it involves a lot of emotion and a lot of technical skill,” Christopher W. Adams, a Charleston defense attorney who is not involved in the case, told The Washington Post. “For a guy who’s a high school dropout, it’s almost impossible. And I think, for any defendant, no matter how smart, it would be impossible to hit the right emotional tones for the jurors.”

This report contains material from Reuters.

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