Dylann Roof judge orders yet another competency test, ahead of death penalty trial

Source: AP
Source: AP

In late November, Dylann Roof was found competent to stand trial for the 2015 hate murders of nine black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, after which a jury found him guilty in mid-December.

But something has changed in the time since he was last evaluated, according to his defense attorneys, who filed a motion for a new competency hearing ahead of his Jan. 3 federal sentencing trial. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel granted the request Thursday and set a hearing for Monday morning. The judge has forgone delaying the start of sentencing, after promising to issue an opinion shortly after the hearing.

"[Roof's defense team] states that their motion is based on 'facts developed since the [last] competency hearing,'" Gergel wrote in an court order obtained by Mic. "The court will only hear evidence related to any developments since [the last evaluation]."

Gergel said he was allowing competency hearing out of "an abundance of caution," given that Roof has chosen to represent himself during the sentencing proceedings. Roof faces the death penalty, after a conviction on all 33 charges alleging that the avowed white supremacist gunned down the Emanuel AME members because they were black.

If Roof is found incompetent for the sentencing trial, it could halt the proceedings altogether, until his competency is restored, Charleston-based criminal defense attorney Chris Adams said in a phone interview. Even if a client has been previously ruled competent to stand trial, his or her mental health can deteriorate or improve over time, requiring a new evaluation, Adams said. 

"If you're the lawyer of record and you have a client that you believe is incompetent, you have the ethical duty to raise the competency issue with the court," he said.

During a pre-trial conference in a Charleston court Wednesday, Roof told Gergel that he would not call any witnesses or present evidence during sentencing. But he does plan to give an opening statement on his own behalf, and he has the right to cross examine the prosecution's witnesses. 

That could mean he'll speak directly to shooting victims' family members.

The federal courthouse is pictured in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina.
Source: 
Chuck Burton/AP

In the order, Gergel announced his appointment of James Ballenger, a Charleston-based forensic psychologist, to conduct a competency evaluation on Roof over the New Year's holiday weekend. The evaluation will be conducted at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, the North Charleston jail where Roof is detained.

Pending a public hearing Monday morning, the judge said he will decide whether to close the competency proceedings to "protect [Roof's] right to a fair trial and right to self-represent." A report of Roof's last evaluation has been sealed since he was found competent Nov. 25.

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Aaron Morrison

Aaron is a Senior Staff Writer for The Movement at Mic. He covers the intersection of race, justice, politics, diversity and civil rights. He has previously written for IB TImes, Miami Herald, The Bergen Record of New Jersey and the Associated Press. Send tips to aaron@mic.com.

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