Dylann Roof appearing via closed circuit television at his bond hearing in Charleston, S.C., last year. (Reuters)

The white man charged with killing nine black parishioners inside a Charleston, S.C., church last year, who had asked to represent himself in court, reversed course and now wants his defense attorneys back for part of the trial.

This request from Dylann Roof, 22, came less than a week after a judge approved his decision to represent himself in the federal hate-crimes trial stemming from the church massacre — and it was filed just three days before jury selection is scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

Roof was indicted on 33 counts related to the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church, and he faces a possible death sentence in the case. He also faces a potential death sentence in a separate state trial on charges of murder and attempted murder; that trial is set to begin in January.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel agreed to Roof’s latest request on Monday. Gergel had said last month that he would allow Roof to represent himself in the case, though he warned him it was “strategically unwise” to abandon attorneys including David Bruck, who has extensive experience with death-penalty cases. Bruck and Roof’s other attorneys had been appointed as standby counsel to assist him during the case.

On Sunday, Roof requested that his attorneys be reinstated to represent him in the first portion of the trial, which deals with whether he will be found guilty. This message was relayed in a two-sentence filing from Bruck and Roof’s other attorneys that was followed by a handwritten message signed by Roof:


Roof’s handwritten note. (Court records)

Roof’s request to restore his attorneys deals only with the first portion of the trial and does not extend to the part focusing on the death penalty. If Roof is found guilty, the penalty phase of the trial will focus on whether he should or should not be sentenced to death.

Federal authorities have previously outlined some of their reasons he should be sentenced to death, noting in the indictment that three of the victims of the shooting were between 70 and 87 years old. One of the aggravating factors that can warrant a death sentence, according to the federal death-penalty statute, is if a victim is “particularly vulnerable due to old age.”

When the Justice Department announced that prosecutors would seek a death sentence, it argued that Roof “demonstrated a lack of remorse,” that he had specifically targeted the church’s Bible study group to “magnify the societal impact” of the rampage and that “his animosity towards African Americans played a role in the murders.”

Roof’s decision to still seek to represent himself in the penalty phase, meanwhile, could impact what evidence is introduced in an effort to keep him off death row.

One of the mitigating factors that can be used to argue for life imprisonment rather than a death sentence is whether a defendant has any sort of impairment. Bruck had indicated in a court filing that he intended to raise the issue of Roof’s mental state during the penalty phase, writing in a court document that he planned “to introduce expert evidence relating to a mental disease or defect or any other mental condition bearing on the issue of punishment.”

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

Prosecutors say they believe Roof “self-radicalized” online, taking on violent white supremacist beliefs through the Internet. In addition, authorities say they found two handwritten manifestoes from Roof, one in his jail cell and the other in his car, along with a list of churches.

Attorneys for Roof have offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but federal prosecutors have not accepted that agreement. In a hearing last month, Roof said he wanted to maintain his plea of not guilty in the case.

This story, first posted at 9:59 a.m., has been updated.

Further reading:

Remembering the Charleston church victims

Why the federal government is seeking a death sentence for Roof