Church shoot­ing sus­pect al­lowed to act as his own at­tor­ney

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER -

CHARLESTON, S.C. >> The white man ac­cused of fa­tally shoot­ing nine black parish­ioners at a church was al­lowed Mon­day to act as his own at­tor­ney, open­ing the door to court­room spec­ta­cles at his death penalty trial, in­clud­ing Dy­lann Roof ques­tion­ing sur­vivors of the at­tack and rel­a­tives of the dead.

Roof’s de­ci­sion to rep­re­sent him­self comes months af­ter he of­fered to plead guilty in ex­change for the prom­ise of life in prison. But fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have re­fused to take the death penalty off the ta­ble in the slay­ings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Un­til now, Roof has been rep­re­sented by one of the na­tion’s most re­spected cap­i­tal de­fend­ers.

He joins a long line of high-pro­file de­fen­dants who acted as their own at­tor­neys, of­ten with poor re­sults. Se­rial killer Ted Bundy, Belt­way sniper John Allen Muhammed and Army Ma­jor Ni­dal Hasan, who killed 13 peo­ple at the Fort Hood mil­i­tary base in Texas, ended up with death sen­tences.

Af­ter fir­ing their lawyers, Long Is­land Rail Road shooter Colin Fer­gu­son was sen­tenced to 200 years in prison, and 9/11 con­spir­a­tor Zacarias Mous­saoui was sent away for life.

De­fen­dants who act as their own lawyers gen­er­ally want to bring at­ten­tion to their causes and pub­li­cize their ac­tions. That al­most al­ways runs counter to the ad­vice of lawyers, who urge them not to in­crim­i­nate them­selves.

“They think they have a mes­sage and that’s un­for­tu­nately what leads to these crimes in the first place,” said New York at­tor­ney Tif­fany Fri­genti, author of an ar­ti­cle called “Fly­ing Solo With­out a Li­cense: The Right of Pro Se De­fen­dants to Crash and Burn” for her law school jour­nal.

Pro se rep­re­sen­ta­tion can also lead to un­com­fort­able court­room en­coun­ters be­tween de­fen­dants and their vic­tims or those vic­tims’ fam­i­lies if they are ques­tioned by the very per­son who is ac­cused of shat­ter­ing their lives.

“It can seem ben­e­fi­cial. No­body be­lieves in your cause and case more than you,” Fri­genti said. “But it only works that way in very rare cases — usu­ally ap­peals.”

With Roof act­ing in his own de­fense, there is plen­ti­ful op­por­tu­nity for ex­plo­sive or awk­ward court­room mo­ments. Just hours af­ter his ar­rest, some of the vic­tims’ rel­a­tives at­tended Roof’s ini­tial court ap­pear­ance and said they for­gave him and would pray for him. If he continues as his own lawyer, Roof could end up ques­tion­ing those same fam­ily mem­bers in court.

In ap­prov­ing Roof’s re­quest to act as his own lawyer, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel also ap­pointed his de­fense team to stay on as standby coun­sel, avail­able for ad­vice and as­sis­tance through­out the trial. That team in­cludes cel­e­brated death penalty at­tor­ney David Bruck, who slid down one seat and let Roof take the lead chair af­ter the judge’s or­der Mon­day.

Known as a hard-charg­ing lawyer with deep op­po­si­tion to the death penalty, Bruck’s record is mixed. He kept Su­san Smith off South Carolina’s death row for send­ing her car into a lake with her two chil­dren strapped in­side, but he could not keep a fed­eral jury from sen­tenc­ing Bos­ton Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsar­naev to death last year.

Roof’s mo­tion came the same day jury se­lec­tion re­sumed in the case, a process halted Nov. 7 af­ter lawyers for Roof ques­tioned his abil­ity to un­der­stand the case against him. Af­ter a hasty two-day com­pe­tency hear­ing, Gergel last week ruled that Roof was com­pe­tent to stand trial.

Roof has also been found com­pe­tent in state court, where pros­e­cu­tors plan a sec­ond death-penalty trial on nine counts of mur­der.

Dur­ing the ju­ror qual­i­fi­ca­tion, Roof sat at the de­fense ta­ble oc­ca­sion­ally con­fer­ring with Bruck. He reg­is­tered few ob­jec­tions to ju­rors, agree­ing with Gergel about a man’s state­ments that the crime being in a church made it more wor­ri­some to him and also say­ing a woman’s death penalty views made her a good ju­ror. Oth­er­wise, Roof sat in his chair, sometimes look­ing at papers spread out be­fore him.

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