COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The man on federal death
row for the racist
slayings of nine members of a Black South Carolina
congregation was wrongly allowed to represent himself during a critical phase of his trial
, his attorneys argued Tuesday, saying Dylann Roof
's continuing "delusional belief" that he'd be saved by white nationalists — but only if he kept mental health
evidence out of his defense — should be allowed to continue.
Roof's attorneys argued in front of a three-judge panel that an appellate court should overturn his convictions and death sentence, or remand his case to court for a "proper competency evaluation," which they claim was not performed during his 2017 trial.
Roof became the first person in the United States
to be sentenced to death for a federal hate crime
that year, when he opened fire during the closing prayer of a 2015 Bible study at Charleston's Mother Emanuel
AME Church, raining down dozens of bullets on those gathered. He was 21 at the time.
Roof successfully prevented jurors from hearing evidence about his mental health while representing himself at sentencing, arguing that he was “under the delusion” that “he would be rescued from prison by white-nationalists — but only, bizarrely, if he kept his mental-impairments out of the public record.”
During that portion of the trial, the self-avowed white supremacist neither fought for his life nor explained his actions, merely stating that “anyone who hates anything in their mind has a good reason for it.”
Roof only shirked his trial team to represent himself, according to appellate attorney Alexandra Yates
, because the trial judge gave him a choice: keep his attorneys and allow mental health evidence in, or get rid of them and keep it out.
“A defendant does not have to forego the assistance of experienced attorneys in order to remain master of his own defense, with the right to choose the objective of that defense,” Yates explained.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel held two competency hearings: one before the start of Roof's trial and one before sentencing, to determine if Roof could act as his own attorney during that portion of the trial.
Appellate attorney Sapna Mirchandani said Tuesday that by excluding experts who would have argued against Roof's competency from the second hearing, the trial court "blinded itself" to whether Roof acted out of prejudice or as a result of his mental illness.
In the second hearing, Ann O'Connell Adams of the United States Department of Justice
argued that Gergel had reviewed prior evaluations of Roof, who she claimed admitted that his white supremacy
rescue plan was unlikely to succeed.
“Roof confirmed that he understood the high likelihood that he would be sentenced to death, and that the chance of being rescued was very small,” Adams said, adding that “Roof was not making an irrational calculation that his best way to stay alive was to keep out the mental health mitigation evidence.”
All of the judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers South Carolina, have recused themselves from hearing Roof's appeal; one of them, Judge Jay Richardson, prosecuted Roof's case as an assistant U.S. Attorney, and the panel hearing arguments on Tuesday was made up of judges from several other appellate circuits.
Roof was sentenced to nine consecutive life sentences following his federal trial after pleading guilty to state murder charges in 2017, allowing him to await execution in a federal prison and sparing his victims and their families the burden of a second trial.
Although President Joe Biden
hasn't spoken publicly about capital punishment
since taking office, White House press secretary Jen Psaki
said in March that he still has "grave concerns" about it.
As vice president, Biden attended the funeral for one of those killed, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who also pastored the congregation. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden frequently mentioned the shooting
, saying that a visit to Mother Emanuel helped him heal after the death of his son, Beau.
Roof could file a 2255 appeal, which asks the trial court to review the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence, or he could petition the United States Supreme Court
or seek a presidential pardon
if he is unsuccessful in his direct appeal.
Meg Kinnard's Twitter
handle is: http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.