CHARLESTON, S.C. — A federal judge Monday postponed the first day of jury selection in the trial of a South Carolina man accused of killing nine black people at a black church last year.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel said he needed to privately hear a motion filed by
The move came moments after Roof, wearing a gray and white striped Charleston County Detention Center uniform and without handcuffs, entered the courtroom. He is accused of killing the black parishioners during a Wednesday night Bible study at
Gergel said the motion from Roof’s defense counsel required his “immediate attention.” The document was filed under seal and the hearing was to involve only Roof and his attorneys. Prosecutors, the media and the public were barred from attending.
“The closing of the hearing is necessary to protect the attorney-client privilege and the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury and a fair trial,” Gergel said, reading from a brief statement.
At the time of the announcement, about 30 people — all African Americans — were seated in rows behind prosecutors and reserved for family members of the “Charleston Nine.” Roof, 22, is white.
About a dozen members of the general public and another dozen members of the media also were in the courtroom.
In a 10 a.m. hearing where interested parties could object to the closure of the hearing, lead prosecutor
Several members of the media also registered objections, with Gergel noting that the hearing would be transcribed and those portions that do not violate Roof's right to a fair trial or violate attorney-client privilege would be released, pending his review.
One member of the public, Cheryl McGinnis, addressed Gergel, saying she had no tie to the shooting, but arrived in a show of support with victims.
"I'm a mom from New York City and I feel very strongly that the public deserves transparency," said McGinnis. "I understand attorney-client privilege, but I do feel strongly we need as much transparency as possible."
The court had previously announced it would not hold jury selection Tuesday, Election Day, and the process is scheduled to resume Wednesday.
Roof had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, a deal that was rejected by federal prosecutors who are seeking a death sentence.
Twenty prospective jurors are scheduled to be interviewed each day, with 10 reporting in the morning and another 10 arriving for questioning after lunch.
Hate and forgiveness
With the shootings, Roof intended to boost racial tensions, according to federal officials. Instead, the shooting left the nation aghast that worshippers were slaughtered in a house of God and touched off questions about “lone wolf” shooters, race relations and the nature of forgiveness.
South Carolina lawmakers answered by ridding its statehouse grounds of the Confederate flag.
On his website, one that included photos of Roof holding the Confederate flag, he wrote that he chose Charleston because it is [the] most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country.
Parishioners at the historically black Mother Emanuel welcomed Roof when he appeared for the Wednesday night Bible study. Unknown to them, he carried a Glock pistol and eight magazines, each loaded with hollow-point bullets.
But from a wounded Charleston in the shootings’ aftermath also came an extraordinary olive branch, one that mesmerized a nation.
Within 48 hours of the attack, as Roof appeared for a bond hearing, the voices of several family members of the victims rose above condemnations calling the shootings a hate crime.
Watching Roof on a closed-circuit television that piped him into a courtroom, Nadine Collier addressed him in a tearful, aching plea.
“I forgive you. You took something very precious from me,” she said of her 70-year-old mother, Ethel Lance. “I will never talk to her again, but I forgive you, have mercy on your soul.”
That moment might well have also factored into a defense decision to leave Roof’s fate to Charleston, Frederick said.
“They are not going to go in there and justify the crime. They can’t,” he said. “They are going to have to tap into something bigger. That could be community healing, and community healing without violence.”
Roof in August had sought to avoid execution by offering to plead guilty and accepting a sentence that would ensure he would never leave prison. That bid was rejected by prosecutors.
The politics of the Charleston area also likely weighed into the defense decision to keep the trial local, said Bernard Powers, history professor at the College of Charleston.
The city is a stalwart blue island in a state that has voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 13 of the last 14 elections, with only fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter making Democratic inroads.
Powers, a member of a nearby AME church and one of a trio who authored, “We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel,” said a good many residents fall into one of two camps regarding the trial, regardless of their skin color.
Some believe it is right and proper that the venue and jurors are local, he said. Others though, fear an opening of wounds that are trying to heal, particularly as nightmarish details of that night are made public in court.
Like many, Powers marveled at family members who extended forgiveness, but that gesture does not define the whole city, even if the narrative of a merciful Charleston makes for a wrenching and beautiful story.
“You’re talking about a small group of people and unrepresentative in their goodness,” Powers said. “Now, that doesn’t take anything away from Charlestonians. You can’t generalize, as some people have done, from the families who have extended forgiveness to the whole community.”
Some people see life as a fit punishment, but others do not, he said.
Some jurors were earlier excused “for cause” — common-sense reasons such as familiarity with a trial participant or inability to leave a small child. Those who moved on completed a questionnaire.
Based on questionnaire answers, the court, with input from defense attorneys and prosecutors, determined many of the candidates were not qualified and excused them.
In a death penalty case, prospective jurors who say they would not be able to recommend a sentence of execution are not considered for a final panel, as are those who seem overzealous regarding the death penalty.
Jury qualification will continue until 70 members of the pool who are deemed qualified by the court, a process that at its earliest could end early next week, but could take much longer depending on the pace of the proceeding.
After the selection of the 70 prospective jurists, defense attorneys and prosecutors can begin striking members of the panel. Under federal rule, each side is allowed 20 strikes. Gergel has additionally allowed the prosecution and defense an additional three strikes each, to be used only for alternate jurors, until a panel of a dozen jurors and six alternates is reached.