Man who killed nine at South Carolina black church appeals conviction, death sentence

(Reuters) – Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine black people at a South Carolina church in 2015, has appealed his conviction and death sentence, with lawyers arguing the mentally ill defendant never should have been allowed to represent himself at trial.

FILE PHOTO: Dylann Roof is escorted into the court room at the Charleston County Judicial Center to enter his guilty plea on murder charges in state court for the 2015 shooting massacre at a historic black church, in Charleston, South Carolina, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Grace Beahm/Pool

“This Court should vacate Roof’s convictions and death sentence,” says his appeal, filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday.

After the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, allowed Roof to represent himself, the defendant elected not to present any evidence.

The jury then found him guilty of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes resulting in death, for the shocking mass shooting at the landmark Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June 2015.

That same jury gave him the death penalty in January 2017 after deliberating for less than three hours.

Federal public defenders representing Roof said in a 321-page brief that when Roof represented himself, he was a “22-year-old, ninth-grade dropout diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorder, autism, anxiety, and depression, who believed his sentence didn’t matter because white nationalists would free him from prison after an impending race war.”

His defense lawyers, at the time of his 2016 trial, told Gergel that in their decades of experience “none had represented a defendant so disconnected from reality,” the appeal brief said.

“Roof’s crime was tragic, but this Court can have no confidence in the jury’s verdict,” the filing said.

At a pretrial hearing to consider the issue, five experts testified that he showed a wide range of mental health symptoms, but when Roof addressed the hearing he denied any mental problems and denied previous assertions about a race war, the brief said.

Gergel nonetheless found him competent, saying he was “cogent and articulate” when he addressed the court and “this defendant has an extremely high IQ.”

“I continue to believe it is strategically unwise, but it is a decision you have the right to make,” Gergel said at the time.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to act as his own lawyer in the 1975 decision Faretta v. California.

But Roof’s lawyers say that decision and subsequent ones set limits on self-representation.

The 2008 decision Indiana v. Edwards allows judges to force a lawyer on defendants who lack mental capacity, they said.

“The choice is not all or nothing,” the lawyers said, citing the 2018 ruling in McCoy v. Louisiana.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum

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