As trial begins, Dylann Roof remains conflicted on legal representation

Law and Disorder

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Dylann Roof - CHARLESTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Charleston County Sheriff's Office
  • Dylann Roof
With opening arguments in the federal trial of Dylann Roof set to begin Wednesday, the accused Emanuel AME Church shooter has once again requested a change in legal counsel. In a handwritten note filed Sunday, Roof asked that his standby attorneys be allowed to represent him, but only until the sentencing phase of the trial. Facing the possibility of the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release, the 22-year-old surprised many last month by requesting to represent himself during the trial, much to the chagrin of his court-appointed attorneys.

For five days, attorneys for Roof looked on as the defendant participated in the final stages of the jury-selection process to determine the group who will decide his fate. The decision to allow Roof to serve as his own counsel came just days after U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel deemed Roof fit to stand trial following a court-ordered mental evaluation that delayed jury selection by several weeks. According to Gergel, the man accused of killing nine black parishioners during Bible study in June 2015 has the right to represent himself, although the judge deemed the decision "unwise."

Wearing a gray-and-white striped prison jumpsuit, Roof looked on as potential jurors cycled in and out of the courtroom. Gergel led questioning, asking each candidate his or her feelings regarding the case, race, and their feelings regarding the death penalty.

Throughout the process, defense attorney David Bruck would pass notes back and forth with Roof as Gergel discussed his opinions on the suitability of each potential juror.
Citing an answer one woman had provided on the case-specific questionnaire, Gergel asked the prospective juror about what she had written: "I'm sickened at the thought that someone could go into a church and murder people."

The woman told the judge that she likes to think of herself as a person who could remove herself emotionally from the circumstances of the trial, but "It's hard to take a step back from that ... I'm getting the chills right now thinking of someone doing that."
Gergel excused the woman before announcing his desire to exclude the woman from serving on the jury due to her response. The prosecution opposed the judge's decision to strike the potential juror, saying that she was merely being honest and acknowledged that this is an emotional case for all those involved. Gergel turned to Roof and asked if he objected to removing this particular juror from serving in the trial. He leaned forward and answered no before scratching the juror's number from the papers stacked in front of him.

This process continued throughout the week until a pool of 67 potential jurors were deemed qualified to serve. The final 12 jurors and six alternates will be drawn from this group and prepare to hear opening arguments this week. Roof faces a 33-count federal indictment that includes hate crime charges. Although Roof has asked that his attorneys represent him during the guilt portion of the trial, if he is found guilty, his request to speak for himself during the sentencing phase of the trial raises many questions. While the court has declared that Roof possesses an "extremely high IQ," those appointed to defend him in the federal trial opposed the judge's decision, calling Roof "a 22-year-old, ninth-grade dropout with a GED" who would be unable to navigate the complicated proceedings of a capital trial. But Roof is by no means the first defendant asking to speak on his own behalf in a high-profile capital trial, even if such cases are incredibly rare overall.

According to the Criminal Law Handbook, defendants may be compelled to represent themselves for myriad reasons, such as a desire to make a statement, a belief that lawyers are a part of an overall oppressive system, or the desire to take control of their own fate by attempting to sabotage their own case. Serial killer Ted Bundy, a former law student who was executed in 1989, took the opportunity while serving as lead attorney in his trial to propose to his girlfriend as she took the witness stand. Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad, executed in 2009, briefly served as his own attorney, delivering opening arguments in his capital trial before asking for legal counsel.

Attorneys later appealed Muhammad's sentence unsuccessfully, arguing that he was mentally unfit to be executed and should have never been allowed to act as his own attorney.

A 2000 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that almost all individuals charged with a felony in federal courts were represented by either hired or appointed counsel, with less than half of a percent of defendants choosing to self represent. These findings were consistent with a 2015 study published in the Federal Courts Law Review that examined more than 1.1 million federal cases between 1996-2011. Over that 15-year period, defendants served as their own attorney in 2,375 felony criminal cases or approximately 0.2 percent of trials that took place in federal courts. And during these 15 years, the number of cases dismissed involving self-representation has risen to 33 percent, compared to slightly more than 5 percent of cases where the defendant has an attorney. Researchers also found that the rate at which defendants who choose to represent themselves are found guilty decreased by more than 20 percent between 2004-2011, while guilty rates among those with an attorney have remained consistent.

"Pro se [self-representing] defendants were much more likely to have their cases dismissed than appointed or retained counsel. They were also the least likely to plead guilty. At trial, pro se defendants were more likely to be found guilty (in a plea or trial) than those with retained or appointed counsel," write Jona Goldschmidt and Don Stemen, who authored the report. "They were acquitted at a rate slightly higher than defendants with appointed counsel, but not as high as those with retained counsel. The pro se defendants' rate of guilty findings has been steadily decreasing."


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