COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Attorneys for white supremacist Dylann Roof argue he was mentally ill when he represented himself at his capital trial for the 2015 murders of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
In the 321-page brief filed late Tuesday with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, his attorneys argue his convictions and federal death sentence should be overturned.
One of the biggest arguments presented in the appeal is Roof should not have been allowed to represent himself during the penalty phase of his capital trial. In doing so, his appellate attorneys argue he presented no mitigating evidence, also known as extenuating circumstances. As a result, his alleged mental illness was not disclosed to the jury, which they argue could have swayed the jury.
In the legal brief, appellate attorneys argue after cooperating for 16-months leading up to the trial, three days into jury selection Roof became uncooperative with his trial lawyers. Shortly thereafter, he wrote a letter to prosecutors insisting he was not mentally ill and explained his opposition to his counsel’s plan to present “mental health stuff,” particularly evidence that he was autistic, which he considered a fate “worse than death.”
Roof was seen by several defense experts who said he showed symptoms of a psychotic disorder, including delusions, paranoia, and grandiose beliefs. He also showed signs of depression, anxiety, and autism, according to experts.
One of his most prominent delusions, his counsel pointed out to the judge, was that African Americans were mounting a race war to extinguish the white population and a media conspiracy was hiding it.
They said in part, “He firmly believes that there will be a white nationalist takeover of the United States within roughly six, seven or eight years and when that happens, he will be pardoned.”
After two competency evaluations, the judge ruled Roof was competent to stand trial. It sided with an opinion given by a court-appointed psychiatrist who evaluated Roof. He said, “Roof’s visions were ‘over-valued’ racist views, not delusions, because they were ‘less bizarre’ and ‘more logical’ than delusions and because ‘nothing else about him was psychotic.’”
During the guilt phase of the capital trial, Roof offered no witnesses and the defense rested. After several weeks of testimony and three hours of deliberation, Roof was found guilty on all 33 counts.
During the penalty phase, Roof, still representing himself, addressed the jury for the first time during opening statements, according to the appeal.
He told them he chose to self-represent to stop counsel from arguing he was mentally ill but admitted his choice “accomplished nothing” because the competency hearing record would eventually become public. He insisted to the jury he was not mentally ill, claiming “there is nothing wrong with me, except logic.”
It was during the penalty phase the government offered dozens of witnesses, describing the pain and suffering Roof’s actions had on them and their families. It was Roof’s opportunity to provide mitigating evidence on his own behalf, such as a mental illness diagnosis, but he did not.
His appellate attorneys argue in failing to disclose that information to the jury, it lacked all of the information necessary to make an informed decision and Roof’s rights to due process were violated.
The Department of Justice has until February 18 to respond to the appeal. Roof is currently housed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.