Dylann Roof hate crime trial hinges on judge's decision in his competence to stand trial


Two weeks ago, just as jury selection was to begin in one of the worst acts of hate violence against African-Americans in at least a generation, attorneys for accused killer Dylann Roof asked a federal court to determine whether he is sane enough to answer for the crime.

Now, the case against Roof, who is accused in the June 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, hinges on a judge's decision on the matter. On Monday afternoon, U.S. court officials said a competency hearing that got underway that morning would continue into Tuesday.

"No decision on the defendant's competency is expected today," the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina said in a statement.

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U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel last week ruled that the competency hearing would be closed to the public and that the contents of the court-appointed psychiatric examiner's report would be sealed, at least until after the judge could make a ruling. If Roof is ruled competent, jury selection would likely resume next week, Mic-obtained court documents show.

According to the Charleston Post and Courier, attorneys planned to discuss the examiner's reliance on interviews with Roof during Monday's hearing. If potential jurors among the general public were to hear the sensitive details contained in those interviews, it could infringe on Roof's right to a fair trial, Gergel said in court last week.

Authorities say Roof, who has professed white nationalist ideologies, targeted Emanuel AME Church, where members were holding a bible study meeting with their pastor on June 17, 2015, because the parishioners were black. In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a 33-count hate crime case against Roof in court.

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Roof, 27, also faces firearms charges related to his to interference with the parishoners' exercise of religion, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in a statement. If convicted, Roof could face the death penalty.

His defense team has previously suggested that Roof would plead guilty to the charges if the feds took the death penalty off the table. In state court, their client also faces nine courts of murder, three attempted murder charges and a firearms charge. 

That case also carries the death penalty.

Regardless of whether Roof is considered competent enough to have known right from wrong when he committed the murder, the hearing has again raised questions about racial equality in the judicial system. While numerous black and white defendants have been put to death after murder convictions, courts are frequently asked to weigh whether a defendant's mental health should save them from being put to death, to disparate racial outcomes.

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For example, lawyers in the 1981 death row case of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man convicted of murder in Arkansas, failed to convince the courts and then-President Bill Clinton to grant mercy to Rector, who had been found "totally incompetent" after the trial. Rector was executed in 1992. 

In the 1979 case of Johnny Paul Penry, a white man convicted of murder in Texas, federal courts have overturned his death penalty sentence three times because Penry has an IQ of 56, well below the threshold for mental retardation.

As the competency hearing is closed, it's not clear whether Roof's lawyers contend that their client's mental state is anywhere close to that of Rector or Penry.