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Roof found competent for trial in Charleston church killings

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    In this June 18 photo, Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C.

Dylann Roof, the self-avowed white supremacist who is accused of killing nine black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June 2015, is competent to stand trial, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Judge Richard M. Gergel of U.S. District Court in Charleston did not explain his decision beyond writing that he had considered “the record before the court, the relevant legal standards and the arguments of counsel.” Gergel did not release a transcript of a two-day closed hearing this week about Roof’s condition, and he issued his factual findings under seal.

The ruling means that individual questioning of prospective jurors — a process that was scheduled to start Nov. 7 but was delayed when Roof’s defense lawyers raised questions about his mental status — will begin Monday.

The Justice Department is seeking the death penalty against Roof, 22, in the massacre the night of June 17, 2015, at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof, through his defense lawyers, has offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors have refused to accept that deal, which would avert a trial on the 33-count federal indictment.

A lawyer for Roof, David I. Bruck, did not respond to a request for comment Friday. He has refused to discuss his concerns about Roof’s competency outside the closed proceedings, which Gergel said were necessary to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Gergel said Friday that in addition to reviewing affidavits from three people, he heard testimony from five witnesses, including Dr. James C. Ballenger, a psychiatrist who examined Roof.

To declare Roof incompetent, Gergel would have had to conclude that he was “presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rending him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.”

The charges against Roof include hate crimes resulting in death, and the main question in his case has concerned whether he would receive the death penalty in a second phase after a determination of guilt.

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