CHARLESTON, SC — The revelations in a federal courtroom last week were gruesome – difficult to hear and to watch.
But an underlying tension in the horrific hate crimes trial of Dylann Roof is the battle between two key players who started their careers in Columbia: defense attorney David Bruck and trial judge Richard Gergel. At stake? Nothing less than the life of Roof.
Bruck and Gergel are clashing over Bruck’s repeated motions and efforts to allow the jury to hear evidence about Roof’s mental state. Roof is charged with the June 2015 execution-style killings of nine African-Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
In the past week, Gergel has rebuffed Bruck’s efforts to delay the trial and grant a mistrial. Although the judge has sometimes granted Bruck’s motions on various issues, he sometimes scolds Bruck as if addressing a child.
And, as frequently as Bruck tries to get Roof’s mental condition before the jury, Gergel cites numerous legal rules and court decisions that say Bruck can’t put that kind of evidence before the jury during the guilt-or-innocence phase of the ongoing death penalty trial.
If Roof had been found insane earlier, he wouldn’t be standing trial. But mental competency tests have so far found Roof is legally competent – meaning he is able to understand the legal proceedings and assist lawyers in his defense – and so has to stand trial.
So Bruck is pushing to get to the jurors as early as he can anything that would make Roof seem more human – and perhaps less responsible for his actions.
Bruck has even made the sparring personal. On Thursday, the defense attorney suggested Gergel might not be living up to a noble legal standard set by Gergel’s legal hero, the late U.S. Judge Waties Waring of Charleston.
“This courthouse is named for Judge Waring largely due to your efforts,” Bruck told Gergel last week with the jury out of the room, noting that Gergel had led an effort to put a statue of Waring in the Charleston federal courthouse plaza.
“We revere Judge Waring,” Bruck said, his voice rising across a packed courtroom, “Not because he did right – but because he did right when it was hard.” Bruck, who usually speaks in a patient, almost gentle, voice, emphasized the word “hard,” implying Gergel was taking the easy way out over a dispute about a prosecution witness’ statement that Roof should be punished “in the pit of hell.”
Gergel ignored Bruck’s jibe about Waring, a legendary Charleston judge who in 1951 wrote a courageous legal opinion that eventually helped lead to the country’s end of segregated public schools.