Defense Attorney Calls Roof Trial ‘a Runaway Train’

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – The sentencing trial of Charleston church gunman Dylann Roof stalled briefly Thursday morning after he filed a motion objecting to the number of witnesses testifying and one his former defense attorneys tried to intervene in the case.

Roof was found guilty in December of 33 federal charges stemming from the massacre he carried out in June 2015 during a Bible study class at the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. Nine parishioners died and three others were wounded in the attack.

Prosecutors said they intended to present the testimony of 38 family members and friends of the victims during the penalty phase of the trial, which got underway Wednesday. So far, five of them have testified, and Roof, who is representing himself during this phase of the trial, has declined to cross-examine them.

But on Thursday morning, Roof filed a handwritten motion objecting to the number of family members who would be testifying.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel asked that the jury be escorted from the courtroom, and after they left, he held a sidebar conference with prosecutor Jay Richardson.

During the sidebar, Gergel expressed his own reservations about a third day of witness testimony.

“I’m concerned about the number of witnesses and the length,” the judge told Richardson. “At some point, it’s too much. I’m concerned about conserving due process.”

Gergel added, “I want you to revisit your strategy here, because at some point I’m going to cut you off, and I don’t want to do that.”

Richardson responded by saying the prosecution no longer plans to present nearly as many witnesses as it anticipated, a statement that appeared to satisfy the judge.

“I don’t want us to get to the point where we lose the rationale of the process,” Gergel said.

With that, the judge assured Roof that he would monitor the length of testimony.

At this point, David Bruck of the Washington and Lee School of Law in Virginia, who represented Roof during the guilt phase of his trial and is currently one of his stand-by attorneys, stood to address the court.

“I have to be heard on his behalf, because he cannot do it,” Bruck said of Roof.  “I have been passing notes and telling him in every way I can to object … but he is not capable of intervening to object … This man cannot protect his own rights. He cannot do it.”

Calling the proceedings a “runaway freight train,” Bruck said, “This is his sentencing … it’s not a memorial. We have to do something from stop this from continuing.”

He then made a motion to appointed Roof’s attorney, but Gergel declined.

“Frankly, Mr. Bruck … I don’t think much of this was improper,” the judge said. With that, he requested that the jury return to the courtroom.

On a related note, state Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr. on Thursday indefinitely postponed Roof’s state murder trial.

That trial was scheduled to get underway on Jan. 17.

Nicholson said the state trial would be postponed indefinitely in order to give the parties time to prepare after Roof’s federal trial concludes.