Unsealed court documents show the struggle to defend Dylann Roof

Roof threatened to kill lead attorney

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Dylann Roof arrives in state court on April 10 before pleading guilty to murder - GRACE BEAHM/POST AND COURIER
  • Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
  • Dylann Roof arrives in state court on April 10 before pleading guilty to murder
Staring down the death penalty, all Dylann Roof could concern himself with was the smell and fit of the thick, knitted sweater that hung off his slight frame as he sat in the courtroom. At one point during the federal trial for his racially-motivated attack on Emanuel AME Church, Roof privately discussed plans for a screenplay he hoped to have produced when released from jail, his attorneys wrote to a judge on New Year’s Day.

Leading up to the trial, Roof’s relationship with his attorneys grew strained to the point of fracturing. Provided with one of the country’s most qualified death penalty attorneys, David Bruck, Roof only saw the defense’s case as an assault on the legacy he hoped to leave behind.

“My lawyers have purposely kept me in the dark about my defense until the last minute in order to prevent me from being able to do anything about it, which is why I have been forced to write to you,” Roof said in a prison letter he mailed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston leading up to his trial. “Throughout my case, they have used scare tactics, threats, manipulation, and outright lies in order to further their own, not my, agenda.”

And that agenda, as Roof called it, was to present a mental health defense to save him from execution. Even with his life on the line, this was a path Roof was unwilling to take.

“I was lied to repeatedly in order to get me to speak to mental health experts,” Roof wrote in November. “I was told that I needed to talk to them in order to get medicine for a thyroid condition. Everything I was told about these experts and why I was being tested was an absolute lie, and I was never told what they actually specialized in.”

Roof had previously mentioned a possible thyroid problem in a handwritten journal discovered in his car the day after he killed nine parishioners inside of Mother Emanuel. After pages and pages detailing his disturbing perception on race and his beliefs in white nationalism, Roof scribbled the short message, “I have Hoshimoto’s disease.”

A condition caused when the immune system attacks the thyroid, symptoms of Hoshimoto’s disease include increased sensitivity to cold, pale skin, and depression. In presenting possible expert witness testimony related to Roof’s mental status, the defense wrote that an expert would offer her opinion that Roof’s decision to wear two layers of pants on the hot summer night when he launched his attack “suggests the existence of sensory issues that could relate to autism or mental illness.” Of course, Roof would never allow his sanity to be questioned — at least not during the trial.

On the morning in November that jury selection was set to begin for Roof’s federal trial, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel would postpone proceeding until Roof could undergo a competency evaluation. The 22-year-old high school dropout had insisted on representing himself in court. As he explained in his letter to federal prosecutors sent earlier that month, he had lost trust in his attorneys and would stand against their efforts to present a mental health defense.

His attorneys argued that the letter sent by Roof raised serious questions about his competency to stand trial. During a private hearing, Roof was asked to explain his reasons for writing the letter. According to recently unsealed court documents, Roof believed his attorneys would argue that he was autistic. In his mind, the defense’s claim that he has some mental disease “discredits the reason why I did the crime.” Roof told the judge he would rather face the death penalty than have a jury consider that he was not mentally healthy.

A court-appointed psychiatrist was tasked with evaluating Roof’s competency to stand trial. Over five days, Roof met with the examiner, describing himself as a “political prisoner, similar to a Muslim extremist or Jihadist. He readily acknowledged his crimes were racist acts undertaken for the purpose of ‘wak[ing] up white people to all of the violence black people were doing against white people every day.’”

Roof told the psychiatrist that “shooting up a [black] church was the most outrageous thing he could do and was a caricature of a racist act.”

Roof also revealed that he believed being labeled as mentally ill would spoil his reputation as a “perfect specimen” if there happened to be a white nationalist revolution. This isn’t to say that Roof was oblivious to the possibility that he would receive the death penalty. Judge Gergel ultimately decided that Roof understood the high risk of execution for his crimes and his resistance to the proposed mental health defense arose out of his political ideology, rather than any form of mental disease.

“He agreed with Dr. Ballenger’s observation that his goal is not to avoid the death penalty but to protect his ideological motives for his crimes, which he believes a mental health mitigation defense would bring into question,” Judge Gergel wrote in January. “He elaborated that ‘nobody likes me, including other white nationalists, but in my view, what my lawyers wanted to do is — I have like a corpse of a reputation, and they want to burn it.’”

With a judge unable to find Roof unfit to stand trial and a client unwilling to cooperate, Roof’s attorneys found themselves trapped in a day-to-day struggle to protect the defendant as best they could.

Roof’s attorneys claim that during jury selection Roof was opposed to selecting a young, attractive woman to the jury because she would make him nervous.
Concerned that prosecutors would show his personal photographs in court — such as pictures of him wearing a pillowcase on his head as if it were a Klan hood — Roof offered to make a deal with those hoping to convict him if the evidence was withdrawn.

On Dec. 8, Roof passed notes across the defense table during the second day of his trial. Dressed in a dull gray sweater that he would complain reeked of detergent, Roof was concerned that photographs taken of the inside of his car after his arrest would be shown in court. As SLED agents presented graphic images of the bodies of those Roof had killed at Mother Emanuel, Roof grew more and more worried that the court would see the photographs of the facewash and Speghetti-Os he kept in his vehicle.

“You are a liar. You lied about not presenting the exhibits. If you do it, a [sic] swear to god you will regret it,” Roof wrote to his attorneys.

Roof would represent himself in court during the final stage of the trial. Offering only opening and closing statements, he sat quietly as the prosecution argued for the death penalty. These closing days of trial would have been the time when his attorneys would have been permitted to argue that Roof was mentally ill. By sidelining his legal team, Roof ensured that would never happen.

On Dec. 30, Bruck visited Roof in jail. It had been two weeks since Roof was found guilty in federal court. It would be less than that time before he received the death sentence. According to Roof’s attorneys, during his jailhouse visit Roof told Bruck that he hates him and “if he gets out of jail he plans to come to Mr. Bruck’s house and kill him.”


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