Federal Judge Suggests Charleston Shooter Dylann Roof May Not Be Competent To Stand Trial
The Federal Judge presiding over Dylann Roof's murder trial suggested late last week that Roof may not presently be competent to stand trial. This does not mean that he'll be set free, though.
The Federal Judge presiding over the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof said last week that Roof may not be competent to stand trial, raising the prospect that his Federal and State death penalty cases may be indefinitely delayed:
The judge in the death penalty trial of Dylann Roof believes it’s possible the white man charged with gunning down nine black parishioners in Charleston last year may not be mentally competent to stand trial, according to newly unsealed court documents.
A defense motion unsealed Friday mentions U.S. Judge Richard Gergel’s finding that it’s reasonable to believe Roof “may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect.” The motion says the judge’s finding doesn’t alter Roof’s constitutional rights.
Gergel ordered another competency exam for Roof earlier this week, one day after halting jury selection, because of the defense motion. He held a hearing with only himself, Roof and defense lawyers present to consider the defense motion.
“The court is mindful that this delay in jury selection may be disappointing to some,” reads Tuesday’s order. But “under the present circumstances, the court finds this brief delay in jury selection to serve the ends of justice.”
The judge expects a report on the evaluation Monday and will hold a hearing Wednesday. Gergel plans to rule within days whether Roof is competent and, if so, begin jury selection for Roof’s trial Nov. 21.
Much of the unsealed defense motion is redacted, including several lines preceding the reference to Gergel’s “reasonable cause” finding.
If Roof is declared incompetent, he should be transferred to a Bureau of Prisons hospital for further evaluation and treatment “aimed at restoring him to competence,” the motion reads. Roof’s attorneys want the doctor’s report disclosed to them first.
They also want Wednesday’s hearing to be closed and any disputes about the competency finding to be sealed.
Roof is charged with hate crimes, obstruction of religion and other counts in the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Authorities said he sat with 12 people in a prayer meeting for nearly an hour before firing dozens of times, killing nine and leaving three unharmed so they could tell the world the shootings were because he hated black people.
Gergel’s order may delay opening statements until 2017. The judge plans to question the 500 prospective jurors in groups of 10, twice a day, until he qualifies 70 for lawyers to choose from. That process is expected to take several weeks.
Roof’s lawyers have said previously that he would plead guilty to the charges in federal court if prosecutors would agree not to seek the death penalty.
State prosecutors also plan a death penalty trial for Roof on nine counts of murder after the federal trial is finished.
Before proceeding, I think it’s necessary to explain what’s going on here because I’ve seen several comments about social media that suggest members of the public think that this Judge is suggesting that Roof might be able to avoid trial and go free. Nothing could be further from the case. In the context of a criminal case, there are two points at which a Defendant’s mental state become an issue. The one that most people are familiar with, of course, is when someone is found not guilty ‘by reason of mental disease or defect,” or words to that effect. In some states, this has been changed to what has been called a “guilty but insane” verdict. In this case, it’s a verdict that comes after a full trial on the merits that includes psychiatric evidence presented by both sides and in which the defense argues that the defense ought to avoid guilt or punishment because he was not aware that the act he was committing was wrong and/or that he was not aware of the ‘nature and quality’ of his actions at the time of the act due to some mental disease or defect. Generally, a Defendant found not guilty under this verdict will not be released after trial but will be sentenced to treatment in a mental health facility until it is determined by mental health professionals, to the satisfaction of the presiding Judge, that he has been cured. This is what happened to Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassin John Hinckley Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and spent some thirty-four years in a Washington, D.C. psychiatric hospital before being released to the supervision of his mother and other family members earlier years. Hinckley’s seeming acquittal, of course, caused outrage across the country that led to significant reforms that have made it far harder for Defendants to claim this defense successfully. There is also a lesser form of this defense that falls under the category of a so-called ‘crime of passion’ that essentially involves a finding that the circumstances of a crime are such that a person temporarily lost control of their actions. The classic example of this is a spouse who comes home to find their spouse in a compromising sexual position with another person and ends up committing an act of violence against one or both of them out of instantaneous anger or passion. In cases like this, though, the result typically is that the Defendant is found guilty of a lesser offense such as manslaughter instead of murder rather than their being released, although release can happen depending on the facts of the case. This is also a defense raised during trial.
Neither one of these is the kind of mental health issue being raised in connection with Roof, and that brings us to the issue of competence to stand trial.
What’s being suggested in Roof’s case is that he is presently suffering from such a severe mental disease that he is unable to understand what is happening to him, or to assist his attorneys in the defense of either the merits of the trial against him or the eventual penalty phase of his trial, which could lead to his being put to death by either the State of South Carolina or the United States Government. It requires a finding that the Defendant is so mentally deluded that he is essentially unaware of what is happening around him and thus unable to participate in his own trial or to consult with, work with, or instruct his defense counsel as to his wishes with regard to the case. Generally speaking, the standard that the defense must reach in order to obtain a finding such as this is so high that a Defendant must essentially be completely out of touch with reality in their present condition. If such a finding is made, it would be inappropriate to proceed with a trial unless and until Roof is determined to be competent because he would essentially be denied his rights under the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, as well as under several Federal statutes.
We’ve seen this before in high profile cases involving both the shooting of Gabby Giffords in January 2011 and the November 2015 shootings at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility. In the Giffords case, shooter Jared Lee Loughner was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to the Federal Bureau of Prisons medical system for treatment. After more than a year of treatment, Loughner was found competent and, rather than go to trial, he pled guilty in August 2012. In November of that year, Loughner was sentenced to seven life sentences based on his plea. Similarly, the shooter in the Colorado Springs case, Robert Dear, was found incompetent to stand trial and is presently being held in a similar Bureau of Prisons facility and presumably being treated with the goal that he would ultimately either stand trial or plead guilty and be sentenced accordingly, presumably to nothing less than life in prison without parole. Like Dear and Loughner, if Roof is found presently incompetent to stand trial he would be treated until a panel of psychiatrists and the presiding Judge find that he is competent. He will not be released from custody.
The article I quoted above seems to suggest that this issue will be determined in a matter of days, but that is unlikely. Most likely, the Judge will have to order a battery of mental health evaluation for Roof after which there would be a competency hearing that would determine his temporary fate. This is usually a process that takes a matter of weeks or months, not days, especially since it’s generally the case that both the prosecution and defense will want to have Roof examined by their own team of mental health professionals in such a case. In any case, no matter how long it takes, the most that will happen is that his Federal and State trials will be indefinitely delayed until it can be determined that he is mentally fit to stand trial.