(CN) – A federal judge ruled Monday that Dylann Roof, convicted of killing nine people inside a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, is competent to represent himself at the penalty phase of his murder trial, which is set to begin Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ordered a competency evaluation for Roof last week at the request of Roof’s standby counsel. In doing so he said he wanted to exercise “an abundance of caution,” despite an earlier evaluation by Dr. James Ballenger, a specialist in forensic psychiatry, that allowed the guilt phase of the gunman’s trial to proceed.
Roof was found guilty on December 15 of all 33 federal charges he faced in connection with the murder of nine at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, including murder, the commission of hate crimes, and the armed obstruction of the practice of religion.
The jury took less than three hours to return its verdict and it was dismissed for a holiday break.
The same jury will reconvene Wednesday to decide whether Roof will die for what he did or instead be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
During the first phase of the trial, Roof was represented by a court-appointed defense team, but he dismissed them after his guilty verdict was announced, saying he wants to represent himself during the penalty phase of the trial.
Later, he informed Gergel that he will not present a defense or witnesses to speak on his behalf, and plans only to make an opening and closing statement. Gergel has repeatedly told Roof that he’s making a mistake choosing to represent himself, but he’s also told the 21-year-old inmate that it’s his right to do so.
Gergel issued his ruling late Monday afternoon following a closed-door hearing on James Ballenger’s findings. The judge said he needed to close the hearing because if he didn’t, he would have to sequester the jury, something he did not want to do.
“I can’t walk down the street without hearing people talk about this case. This tragedy profoundly affected this community,” the judge said.
Later, he added, “This is an incredibly sensitive moment in this proceeding.”
“We are putting in the hands of 12 people the life and death of a person. There is no civic responsibility more serious than this,” Gergel said.
After holding that Roof is competent to stand trial and to represent himself during the proceeding, Gergel granted Roof’s request for an extra day to prepare for his case.
Roof’s former defense team, which Gergel has made his standby counsel, have repeatedly tried to intervene in the preparation for the next phase of the trial, arguing that Roof fired them because he didn’t want mental health-related evidence introduced in his defense.
In the few, brief handwritten motions he’s filed in the case, Roof appears determined to exclude evidence that he considers embarrassing either to himself or his family. In his latest filing, he said he did not want the transcript of his competency hearing release.
“I know this is not a legal argument,” he wrote, “but the unsealing of the competency hearing defeats the purpose of me representing myself.”
He is also seeking to block the showing of a specific photo during the upcoming proceedings. To date, no one connected with the trial – -Gergel, the prosecution or Roof — has indicated what the photograph shows.
Gergel has said he will rule on that issue at the start of the day on Wednesday.
Prosecutors plan to call up to 38 people related to those killed at the church as well as the three survivors of the massacre during the penalty phase of the trial. Court documents show they are also expected to present evidence that Roof deliberately chose his victims because of their race, because he wanted to start a race war, and that he killed three particularly vulnerable people where were 70 years old or older.
On Monday, Gergel told Roof that he is not to approach the jury, the witness stand or the bench while representing himself. He will also be seated at the defense table farthest from the jury and the families of the shooting victims.
Roof also faces nine murder charges in state court, where prosecutors have also said they will seek the death penalty.
South Carolina has not executed a death-row inmate since 2011, in part because of a lack of availability for the drugs the state uses for lethal injection.