Accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof got to work helping to pick the jury that will decide whether he lives or dies as he embarked on a risky legal strategy Monday, casting aside his top-flight defense team in favor of representing himself in his federal hate crimes trial.
The presiding judge expressed misgivings but ultimately granted Roof’s request to serve as his own attorney with the death penalty hanging in the balance. The ruling sets the stage for the self-avowed white supremacist to question the shooting survivors and family members of the nine victims if they are called to testify.
Roof made the last-minute request as jury selection was set to begin Monday following a three-week delay to determine whether he was mentally competent to stand trial. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled the case could proceed but cautioned Roof against representing himself, noting his defense team’s considerable legal expertise. Gergel concluded, however, that Roof has the capacity and a constitutional right to take over his defense.
“I continue to believe it is strategically unwise, but it is a decision you have the right to make,” Gergel said.
Roof, garbed in a striped grey-and-white jail uniform, stood in the front of the courtroom and answered the judge’s questions with “yes, sir” in a quiet, raspy voice. After Gergel’s ruling, Roof smiled slightly as he returned to the defense table but showed no other obvious emotion.
Roof then sat in the front-and-center seat as his lead lawyer, capital defense attorney David Bruck scooted over. Roof told the judge that he wanted the attorneys he’d just spurned to sit at the table with him. They still can advise Roof.
However, if Roof thinks he can intimidate the two women who survived the bloodshed by grilling them on the witness stand, their attorney thinks it will backfire.
“They have a lot to say to him, and this may provide them with an unanticipated opportunity. The strength of their words will undoubtedly be more powerful than his rants of hate,” said attorney Andy Savage, who represents survivors Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders. Sanders’ son, Tywanza, died in the attack. Both women sat stoically in the front row of the courtroom on Monday.
The Rev. Sharon Risher, an AME minister whose mother died in the shooting, said she was outraged that Roof would be allowed to make a spectacle of the trial and suspected the strategy was aimed at derailing efforts to bring him to justice.
“Something is going on underneath our noses,” Risher said after the hearing. “There has to be some kind of legal tactic with this. I’m just sick.”
Speculation had been swirling for weeks in legal circles as to whether the closed-door proceedings to determine Roof’s competency were somehow related to a quest to mount his own defense. It’s a strategy various high-profile killers have tried in the past, and one that rarely ends up working in their favor.