Dylann Roof found competent to stand trial in church shootings

Dylann Roof is competent to stand trial in the murders of nine worshipers at a Charleston church last summer, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled Friday.

COLUMBIA — Dylann Roof is competent to stand trial in the murders of nine worshipers at a Charleston church last summer, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled Friday.

The ruling came after two days of closed-door hearings this week at which Roof was present.

Gergel issued his three-page order but sealed his finding of facts and conclusions of law because he believes "the public disclosure of that document at this time would prejudice defendant's rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and place in jeopardy the Defendant's right to select a fair and impartial jury and to a fair trial."

He said jury selection in the case would resume Monday.

Gergel ordered the competency hearing closed last week after concluding that holding it in open court could threaten Roof's right to a fair trial.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Roof, 22, who faces 33 federal charges in connection with the murders of nine African-Americans at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston in June 2015.

Roof's trial began Nov. 7 with jury selection but was called to a halt. Gergel subsequently disclosed that Roof was undergoing a competency evaluation.

The Greenville News and USA Today Network objected to the judge's decision to close the competency hearing, along with the Associated Press, the Charleston Post and Courier and The State newspapers, National Public Radio, WCSC-TV and federal prosecutors.

Gergel last Thursday listened for 45 minutes as members of victims' families and news media representatives lodged objections to the closure. But the judge was not swayed.

In his order, Gergel said the competency issue arose Nov. 7 during an ex-parte hearing in which one of Roof's lawyers asked for a competency evaluation.

Gergel wrote in his order that a defendant is not competent to stand trial "only if the Court finds 'that the defendant is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect' that renders him 'unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.'"

"The test for competency is whether the defendant 'has a sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding' and 'has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him,'" Gergel said in his order. "A defendant must have the 'capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense.'"

Gergel said he reviewed "voluminous" documents  and heard the testimony of five witnesses, including Dr. James C. Ballenger, the court-appointed competency examiner, and considered sworn statements from three other people.  Ballenger was the only witness identified in Gergel's order.

Ballenger, Gergel noted in his order, is "one of the nation's most renowned and respected psychiatrists," who has practiced psychiatry for more than 45 years and chaired the department of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina for 17 years.

"After carefully considering the record before the court, the relevant legal standards, and the arguments of counsel, the Court now finds and concludes that the Defendant is competent to stand trial," Gergel concluded in his order.

Gergel said last week he would consider releasing a redacted court transcript of the hearings so the public would have some idea what occurred.

Had Gergel ruled Roof was not competent, he would have been held in federal custody until such time as he was judged competent to stand trial.


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