US church shooter, accused of killing 9 African-Americans, to represent self at trial

Legal experts say mistakes made by a defendant acting as his or her own lawyer can be especially damaging in a case involving capital punishment.

By: AFP | Charleston | Published:November 29, 2016 7:22 am
US church shooting, charleston church shooting, dylann roof, dylann roof self attorney, church shooter case, us church shooter case FILE – This June 18, 2015, file photo, provided by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office shows Dylann Roof. (Charleston County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)

A US federal judge has granted self-described white supremacist Dylann Roof’s request to represent himself at trial on charges of gunning down nine African-American churchgoers last year in South Carolina. US District Judge Richard Gergel’s ruling means that Roof, 22, could cross-examine survivors and family members of those he mowed down in June 2015 during a Bible study class at the historic ‘Mother Emmanuel’ black church in Charleston.

“I do find defendant has the personal capacity to self-representation,” Gergel said.

“I continue to believe it is strategically unwise, but it is a decision you have the right to make.”

Federal prosecutors are seeking to put Roof to death, and have refused to accept his offer to plead guilty to the 33 federal charges against him — including hate crime violations that could carry the death penalty — in exchange for a life sentence.

Roof is also facing state murder charges in South Carolina and faces the death penalty for his allegedly racially-motivated attack. The case got under way earlier this month, but had to be postponed while the court determined whether Roof was mentally competent to stand trial.

Roof was granted the chance to represent himself shortly before jury selection began for the case. The ruling follows Gergel’s ruling on Friday finding Roof was mentally competent to stand trial following a recent mental health evaluation.

Court proceedings are now focused on impaneling a 12-member jury and alternates, a process expected to take at least three weeks. Legal experts say mistakes made by a defendant acting as his or her own lawyer — without legal training — can be especially damaging in a case involving capital punishment.

“I don’t see any circumstance where it won’t be self-destructive,” said James Coleman of Duke Law School.

In the 1980s, Coleman represented the late serial killer Ted Bundy, unsuccessfully trying to appeal the death sentence handed down to Bundy after the killer served as his own defense lawyer and was convicted. Juries tend to react negatively to a defendant acting as his own counsel, possibly interpreting the maneuver as making a mockery of the court and the defendant’s alleged crimes.

Roof will be disadvantaged in not knowing court rules and the ins and outs of legal strategy, but that may not matter to the accused killer, Coleman suggested. “He’ll be a loose cannon and basically can severely disrupt the trial,” said Coleman.

“He may not care. He may be using this as his last hurrah.”