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Accused Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof will represent himself at federal hate-crimes trial

Dylann Roof. (Charleston County Sheriff’s Office via Reuters)

The white man charged with killing nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., last year will be allowed to represent himself in his federal hate-crimes trial, a judge said Monday.

This means that Dylann Roof, 22, could question survivors of the attack if they are called to testify in the case, one of two trials he faces for the massacre at Emanuel AME Church. In addition to being indicted on federal hate-crimes charges, Roof has been charged with murder and attempted murder in state court, and he faces potential death sentences in both trials.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel’s decision Monday came as jury selection is getting underway in the federal trial after a three-week delay. Jury selection was initially scheduled to begin earlier this month, but it was abruptly postponed after last-minute questions arose about Roof’s ability to understand the proceedings and assist in his own defense.

On Friday, Gergel ruled that Roof was competent to stand trial, although he kept sealed his exact reasons for doing so, and hearings and filings on the matter also were shielded from public view.

The victims of the Charleston church shooting

There were other sealed filings over the weekend in the case, which may have reflected debate about Roof’s request to represent himself. It is unclear how his decision to represent himself could affect the timetable for the trial, which is expected to last months. Gergel is expected to issue a written order later Monday, according to the Justice Department.

Attorneys for Roof have said that he had planned to plead guilty if the federal government did not seek a death sentence. David Bruck, an attorney for Roof, did not respond to a message seeking comment about Roof’s decision.

Dylann Roof determined mentally fit for trial (Video: Reuters)

Roof told Gergel that he wanted his attorneys to continue sitting at his table during the trial and act as his “standby counsel,” the Post and Courier newspaper reported.

“I continue to believe it is strategically unwise, but it is a decision you have the right to make,” Gergel said, according to the Post and Courier.

Prosecutors say that Roof “self-radicalized” online, absorbing violent white supremacist beliefs through the Internet, rather than from any personal experiences or associations.

After the church massacre, authorities found a manifesto online that belonged to Roof and was filled with racist characterizations of black people. It also contained images of Roof holding a Confederate battle flag and standing in front of a Confederate museum.

Authorities say they have found two handwritten manifestoes from Roof, one in his jail cell and the other in his car. They also say they located a list of churches.

Defendants in high-profile criminal cases have opted to act as their own attorneys before, in some cases disrupting the ongoing trial. Last year, a white supremacist sentenced to death for killing three people near Jewish facilities in Kansas defended himself, periodically interrupting the trial and, when jurors went to deliberate, standing up and saying “Sig heil” while delivering a Nazi salute.

Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, had sought to defend himself in court, although a a federal judge ruled he could not because of the timing of his request. He wound up confessing as part of a plea bargain that spared him the death penalty but sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

Further reading:

Accused Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof competent to stand trial, judge rules

Police probe threatening letters in Charleston, at least one of which referred to Roof

The Justice Dept. decided this year to seek a death sentence for Roof

This story has been updated since it was first published.