News / World

Church shooting defendant eases into role as own attorney

FILE - This June 18, 2015, file photo, provided by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof. A judge ruled Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, that Roof is competent to stand trial for the killing of nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

FILE - This June 18, 2015, file photo, provided by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof. A judge ruled Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, that Roof is competent to stand trial for the killing of nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The white man prosecutors accuse of gunning down nine black parishioners in a bid to start a race war showed no signs of a racial agenda Tuesday, taking a calm, businesslike approach to selecting a jury that would ultimately decide whether he's put to death.

A judge ruled this week that Dylann Roof could begin representing himself in his federal trial on dozens of charges — including hate crimes and obstruction of religion — for the June 2015 mass shooting at a South Carolina church.

Against his attorneys' advice, Roof sought and won the judge's approval Monday to act as his own attorney. The defendant gave no reason except the constitutional provision governing defendants' right to a speedy trial.

With his defence attorneys demoted to advisers, Roof eased into the role Tuesday of making arguments before the judge as jury selection got underway.

Police say Roof sat through nearly an hour of prayer and Bible study at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church before pulling a gun and firing dozens of shots. According to police, he shouted racial insults and left three people unharmed so they could tell the world the shootings were because he hated black people.

None of that demeanour was present in court Tuesday.

Roof sat in the lead chair at the defence table, wearing a striped jail uniform but no handcuffs or shackles. He made no outbursts or personal statements and stuck to the matter at hand: selecting a fair and impartial jury to consider his trial, expected to open later this year.

Much of the time, he traded notes back and forth with David Bruck, a noted capital defender who was his primary attorney until Monday.

Roof 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.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said the government is seeking death because of "the nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm." Government prosecutors allege Roof talked of starting a race war and posed with the Confederate battle flag before the killings.

At Tuesday's hearing, Roof participated more than the previous day, sometimes conferring with Bruck and other lawyers but also consistently standing to address U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel. At one point, he suggested the judge explain to prospective jurors that the trial will have two phases, guilt and penalty, an idea with which the judge agreed.

At times, Roof objected to juror candidates, including one who answered differently on his questionnaire than he did in court.

"He marked 'yes' for every single one ... and then he told you 'no,'" Roof said. "So I think he should be struck."

Gergel disagreed on that juror, saying he thought the man had misunderstood the written questions and seemed to be telling the truth in court.

Roof made no objection to a man who said he knew of Roof's standing offer to plead guilty to the slayings in exchange for a promise of life in prison.

"We all know that he is guilty," wrote the man, who was qualified by the judge. "It's just a matter of life or death."

Bruck, staying on as a legal adviser, started Tuesday by saying Roof had given him "general authorization" to communicate with prosecutors on his behalf, particularly when it comes to emailing back and forth about court filings. Jailed during his trial, Roof has no access to email, Bruck noted, so he doesn't have the ability either to receive the documents electronically or share them with his advisers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson pointed out that Roof was being kept sufficiently in the loop with paper copies of all filings, a detail with which the judge agreed.

"Mr. Roof has made the decision to represent himself," the judge said. "The standby counsel isn't his co-counsel."

Gergel also said specifically he wanted Roof to address him directly in court, not via his standby counsel, whose participation might enable Roof to complain on appeal that the lawyers he fired had done too much.

"Is that OK, son?" Gergel asked Roof.

"Yes," the 22-year-old defendant answered.

Twenty-seven potential jurors have been qualified, and the judge will question 28 more on Wednesday. Once that number reaches 70, Roof and prosecutors can begin whittling the pool down to a jury of 12 members, plus six alternates.

The process began three weeks ago but was halted after Roof's legal team questioned his ability to understand the case against him. After a two-day hearing, Gergel ruled last week that Roof could stand trial.

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Reach Kinnard at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/ .