The accused Charleston church shooter had a troubled past even before he was arrested for killing nine people at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.
USA TODAY NETWORK

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Against the advice of a federal judge, accused church shooter Dylann Storm Roof will represent himself in a death penalty trial that began Monday.

His three court-appointed lawyers filed a motion Sunday saying that the 22-year-old wanted to discharge them and represent himself. Judge Richard Gergel of U.S. District Court granted the motion moments before jury selection began though he called the self-described white supremacist’s decision “strategically unwise.”

In a series of questions from Gergel, Roof acknowledged that he understood the gravity of the 33 charges against him stemming from the June 2015 shooting deaths of nine black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in this South Carolina city.

Questioning from Gergel lasted less than 10 minutes with Roof usually providing one-word answers — a “yes” when asked if he understood he would be performing in a federal courtroom, a “no” when asked if he had been coerced.

Self-representation in criminal cases, particularly high-stakes matters, is widely viewed as an exercise in poor judgment, said Eric Muller, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Defendants typically are not versed in the many rules governing criminal cases, such as challenging a court venue or items that may have been seized illegally.

“A layperson typically knows none of these crucial things and is therefore in a terrible position to protect himself,” Muller said.

One well-known example of a defendant serving as his own attorney is Colin Ferguson, who killed six people in a 1993 shooting on the Long Island Rail Road, Muller said. Ferguson’s bizarre lines of questioning marked the proceedings, and he was sentenced to multiple terms that ensure he will not leave prison.

“I think it is wise for you to be represented by counsel and to get the benefit of that experience. You know I think that. You and I have talked about it.”

Judge Richard Gergel, U.S. District Court

In acting as his own counsel, Roof can directly cross-examine witnesses. If the three survivors of the attack, one of them a girl was who 11 at the time, take the stand, he also would be able to question them.

“The trial judge will have discretion to shape the way in which Roof would handle himself on cross-examination, but there’s no way to prevent the fact (and traumatizing spectacle) of an alleged shooter interrogating his victims,” Muller wrote in email.

Gergel noted that the lawyers representing Roof are experienced capital defenders who have legal expertise that would benefit him.

“I think it is wise for you to be represented by counsel and to get the benefit of that experience,” Gergel said to Roof, who stood before him wearing a white and blue-gray jumpsuit of the Charleston County jail. “You know I think that. You and I have talked about it.”

Because of conversations with Roof and interacting with him in court, Gergel said he believed that Roof has the capacity to represent himself.

Gergel further ordered that Roof’s existing defense team act as standby counsel and then asked the defendant whether he would like those lawyers to sit at the defense tables or in seats behind him.

Roof paused for a moment, raising his left hand to his temple in a gesture of thought, then said, “Umm, at the table.”

With that, Gergel asked lawyer David Bruck, the former lead counsel for Roof who has vast experience in defending death-penalty cases, to shift one seat over, ceding that top spot to Roof.

A panel of 10 potential jurors entered the courtroom minutes later, all of them white and appearing to be at least 50 years old. Eight were women.

Gergel addressed the group briefly, telling them he would be delving into a questionnaire they filled out and might be asking them individually to elaborate on their opinions on the death penalty. He asked that they answer honestly and stressed that any questions about capital punishment should not reflect on guilt.

He also stressed that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. All but one, a woman who is a schoolteacher, was asked to leave so Gergel could question each one individually.

The woman had noted on her questionnaire that a sentence of life imprisonment sometimes can be worse than the death penalty. Gergel asked her to elaborate.

“I mean, all your freedoms are gone,” she said. “I mean, you’re a number and you always have to look behind your back.”