(CN) — Attorneys for the white supremacist convicted of slaying nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina argued before a federal appeals court Tuesday that he was delusional and should not have been allowed to represent himself.
In a virtual hearing before the Richmond, Virginia-based Fourth Circuit, Dylann Roof’s defense team sought to have the case vacated and remanded for a new competency hearing. They argue he was “disconnected from reality“ when he acted as his own attorney in his 2016-2017 federal murder and hate crimes trial.
In a 321-page brief filed last year, Roof's team of public defenders challenged several elements of the federal trial and conviction over the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015. The arguments on appeal center on the issues of competency and mental illness.
Addressing a three-judge panel Tuesday, Justice Department attorney Ann O’Connell Adams pushed back on the defense’s claim that Roof should be granted another competency hearing.
“There is ample evidence that he understood the facts and the proceedings," Adams said, adding that an expert who evaluated Roof found the defendant "had the ability to assist his counsel, he had the choice whether or not he would cooperate with them.”
She said Roof has a high IQ and she did not have “a shred of doubt” that he knew he would likely face the death penalty for his actions. She said that during expert evaluation, Roof spoke clearly, was alert and had no problem making eye contact.
“No one can fake that," Adams said.
In fact, in his closing statements during the sentencing phase of trial, Roof told jurors, “There is nothing wrong with me psychologically. Anything you heard from my lawyers in the last phase, I ask you to forget it.”
In January 2017, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sentenced Roof to death after the jury returned a guilty verdict on 33 federal charges. Two months later, he pleaded guilty to all the state charges against him and was sentenced in April 2017 to nine consecutive sentences of life without parole.
The public defenders representing Roof claim the federal trial should have never taken place. They say the state was already pursuing capital charges against Roof when federal prosecutors intervened and proceeded to seek the death penalty for him in federal court.
Gergel held two competency hearing for Roof, one before the guilt phase of trial and another before sentencing to determine if he was able to represent himself in the punishment phase. The second hearing, which was ordered after issues of competency arose during trial, did not replace findings from the first hearing but instead evaluated him to determine if he was still competent.
His appellant attorneys argue Roof was delusional in his belief that being sentenced to death does not matter because he believed that white supremacists would rescue him after they win a future race war.
During Tuesday's hearing, the defense claimed Roof masked his mental illness because he believed evidence of it would interfere with his future rescue from prison. Roof told experts that he would rather die than be labeled autistic or schizophrenic.
Roof's public defenders also argued the trial court wrongfully declined to clarify a jury question about the prosecution’s assertion that the defendant poses a future danger. Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said he could incite people to violence by using mail, and the judge instructed the jury to use their common sense.
Defense attorney Alexandra Yates told the appellate panel Tuesday that the jury was mislead because prisons screen mail and Roof’s mail was being screened, but jurors were not informed of that.
The Justice Department argues Roof’s convictions rest on sound and constitutional grounds. Prosecutors say the district court did not improperly preclude Roof from introducing mitigating evidence, and any error was harmless given the evidence against him.
Tuesday's hearing lasted over three hours. The panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Duane Benton and Kent A. Jordan, both appointees of George W. Bush, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, appointed by Bill Clinton.
The judges were brought in from other circuits because all Fourth Circuit judges recused themselves from the case. No specific reason was given, but it is likely because a newer member on the court, Julius N. Richardson, was a federal prosecutor in Roof's trial at the time.
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