A federal judge agreed Monday to let a white man accused of fatally shooting nine black parishioners rehire his attorneys until a verdict is reached, but to remain his own lawyer if he is found guilty and the trial moves into a penalty phase.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ended a week of Roof acting as his own lawyer in his death penalty trial. Roof wrote the Judge a handwritten note with his request over the weekend.
It is unclear why Roof is so determined to keep the lawyers out of the penalty part of his case. In their own motion Friday asking Gergel to order Roof to hire them back, they suggested there is something embarrassing Roof is afraid they might use to try to spare his life. They did not elaborate.
Roof, in his gray and white jail jumpsuit, simply answered questions with “yes” or “no.” Then after Gergel ruled, the 22-year-old described by his lawyers as a “ninth-grade dropout” quietly slid back into the far left chair at the defense table. Lead lawyer and capital defense expert David Bruck took back the lead chair, at least for now.
Death penalty trials are split into two parts: the guilt phase, and then a separate portion that focuses on whether the defendant will be sentenced to death, or life in prison. Roof’s lawyers can represent him in the guilt portion.
Gergel, who last week called Roof’s decision to be his own lawyer “unwise,” said he is still worried Roof is making a grave error by deciding to represent himself in the penalty phase.
“I continue, Mr. Roof, to urge you to reconsider this decision,” Gergel said.
Authorities said Roof shot nine black people during a prayer meeting on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston, because he hated African-Americans. He faces hate crimes and obstruction of religion charges.
A state death-penalty trial on nine counts of murder will follow the federal trial.
Roof’s main act during his week as his own lawyer was to oversee, along with prosecutors, the selection of 67 people who will make up the pool for the 12 jurors and six alternates. The jury will be selected Wednesday before opening statements.
The week of jury qualification was much shorter than that of the federal death-penalty trial of Boston bomber Dshokhar Tsarnaev, which took almost two months.
Gergel held a 50-minute hearing to deal with other motions Monday. He agreed to allow Roof’s parents, grandmother and grandfather, who is a lawyer, to be in the courtroom for the trial, even though they are potential witnesses. All other witnesses must stay out of the courtroom unless they are testifying.
Prosecutors told Gergel that they expect their case in the guilt phase to last six or seven days, with Bruck saying he will take “very little additional time.”