Credit Pool photo by Grace Beahm
Dylann S. Roof, the self-avowed white supremacist who is accused of killing nine black parishioners at a Charleston, S.C., church in June 2015, is competent to stand trial, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Judge Richard M. Gergel of Federal District Court in Charleston did not explain his decision beyond writing that he had considered “the record before the court, the relevant legal standards and the arguments of counsel.” The judge did not release a transcript of a two-day closed hearing this week about Mr. Roof’s condition, and he issued his factual findings under seal.
The ruling means that individual questioning of prospective jurors — a process that was scheduled to start on Nov. 7 but was delayed when Mr. Roof’s defense lawyers raised questions about his mental status — will begin Monday.
The Justice Department is seeking the death penalty against Mr. Roof, 22, in the massacre on the night of June 17, 2015, during a Bible study session at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mr. Roof, through his defense lawyers, has offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors have refused to accept that deal, which would avert a trial on the 33-count federal indictment.
A lawyer for Mr. Roof, David I. Bruck, did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. He has refused to discuss his concerns about Mr. Roof’s competency outside the closed proceedings, which Judge Gergel said were necessary to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial by an impartial jury.
Judge Gergel said Friday that in addition to reviewing affidavits from three people, he heard testimony from five witnesses, including Dr. James C. Ballenger, a psychiatrist who examined Mr. Roof. The judge did not disclose any of the information he received, and much of the legal wrangling surrounding the matter of Mr. Roof’s competency happened in sealed court filings.
To declare Mr. Roof incompetent and delay his trial, Judge Gergel would have had to conclude that he was “presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rending him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.” The judge used a “preponderance of the evidence” standard to reach his decision.
There is overwhelming evidence that it was Mr. Roof who joined nine African-American parishioners in the church’s fellowship hall and, after an hour of study and prayer, removed a Glock handgun from a fanny pack and opened fire. Among those killed were the church’s pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney, who also served in South Carolina’s State Senate; three other ministers; and stalwarts of the congregation who ranged in age from 26 to 87. Two women and a child survived, along with Mr. Pinckney’s wife and younger daughter, who were hiding in his adjacent office.
Within hours of the shooting, the authorities found an online manifesto in which Mr. Roof outlined racist beliefs and seemed to claim responsibility for the killings, as well as photographs of him posing with various white supremacist symbols. He was arrested without incident the next day while driving in North Carolina with a gun that officials believe was the murder weapon in the back seat.
The charges against Mr. Roof include hate crimes resulting in death, and the main question in his case has concerned whether he would receive the death penalty in a second phase after a determination of guilt.
In addition to the federal case, Mr. Roof is facing prosecution for capital crimes in state court, with a trial scheduled to begin in January.