Accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof filed a motion Sunday asking a federal judge to let his defense team represent him again, but only through the guilt phase of his death penalty trial set to begin in three days.
After a two-sentence formal motion filed by his advisory lawyers, Roof hand-penned a note to the federal judge overseeing his case. In block letters on lined notebook paper, he wrote: “I would like to ask if my lawyers can represent me for the guilt phase of the trial only. Can you let me have them back for the guilt phase, and then let me represent myself for the sentencing phase of the trial?”
If U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel grants the highly unusual request, it would would allow Roof’s former defense team to take over for opening statements and the portion of the trial when prosecutors must prove Roof’s guilt. The defense attorneys already have offered for Roof to plead guilty and serve life in prison without parole, but federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for 33 counts including hate crimes.
Roof still wants to act as his own attorney during the last part of the trial, when jurors decide whether he will get death or life in prison without parole. That would give the self-avowed white supremacist control over what evidence is presented on his behalf when the time comes for the defense to try to sway jurors to give him life in prison.
During the penalty phase, defense attorneys typically offer evidence about a defendant’s serious mental illness or other brain impairments, history of abuse, severe family upheaval and similar issues as possible mitigating factors in a killing. Earlier court filings show the defense team Roof discharged last week had planned to provide evidence of a “mental disease or defect or any other mental condition.”
Nationally known death penalty defense attorneys describe often working with killers who either cannot, or will not, admit they suffer serious mental illness and will vehemently argue against offering evidence that could prove it. Some even move to represent themselves to avoid doing so.
“Most people with mental illness don’t want to be thought of as mentally ill and will frequently take steps against that kind of defense from being offered, particularly those with paranoid thought disturbances,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
He knew of capital cases in which defendants who represented themselves at trial wound up asking a judge to permit their standby counsel to take over as the trial moved forward. However, he wasn’t aware of any death penalty case in which a judge allowed a defendant to represent himself and then have standby counsel come back in only for the guilt phase.