The Dylann Roof Murder Trial Takes a Surprising Turn

November 28th 2016

Mike Rothschild

The federal trial of accused Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof is still in the jury selection phase, but it's already had multiple twists. The latest being that the 22-year-old's motion to represent himself as his own attorney was granted on Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel, who called Roof's desire to represent himself "strategically unwise," but found that Roof had both the mental capacity and constitutional right to be his own lawyer.

Judge Gergel found Friday that Roof, accused of shooting and killing nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015, was competent to stand trial two weeks after his defense team filed a motion to have his psychiatric condition evaluated.

The move will allow Roof, who is facing the death penalty, to personally object to jurors he finds might be prejudiced against him. He will also be able to conduct questioning of witnesses, survivors and family members.

Reports from the courtroom have Roof's current attorney, noted anti-death penalty advocate David Bruck, changing roles to act as a "stand-by council" and give advice. Jury selection then continued, with Gergel's questions to prospective jurors centering on their feelings about the death penalty.

Both the U.S. Constitution and federal law make the right to self-representation available to all citizens. In fact, this right predates the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees representation for all accused of a crime. The Judiciary Act of 1789, which enacted the current system of 13 federal courts being fed cases from district courts, also allowed for self-representation. The Act's Section 35 reads:

In all courts of the United States, the parties may plead and manage their own causes personally or by assistance of such counsel or attorneys at law as by the rules of the said courts respectively shall be permitted to manage and conduct causes therein.

This right was further codified by the United States Code, in Section 1654 of title 28, which reads, "In all courts of the United States the parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel as, by the rules of such courts, respectively, are permitted to manage and conduct causes therein." The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this right, pending the assurance of mental competency, in 1975 in Faretta v. California.

There are legitimate reasons a person might want to act as his or her own lawyer, including reducing costs and saving time. Because of this, self-representation has become increasingly common in civil cases involving bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce, child custody and small claims.

However, a survey of judges found that defendants in these cases often fare badly, making simple procedural errors and not presenting evidence properly.

It's extremely rare in criminal cases, and often done as a stunt or to attempt a mistrial. Multiple serial killers have represented themselves, including Long Island Railroad killer Colin Ferguson, Ted Bundy, and D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. All were found guilty.

Since Dylann Roof's trial is still in its opening phase, it's hard to know his purpose for representing himself. But it's clear that doing so will hurt his chances at avoiding the death penalty - which appears to be the chief reason the trial is going forward.