Dylann Roof tells jurors he is not mentally ill

Dylann Roof, shown in 2015, is representing himself during the sentencing phase of his death penalty trial for killing nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church. (Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
South Carolina church gunman said 'I'm not crazy' during shooting - witness

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - The widow of the pastor who was among the nine people killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof at a historic black church in South Carolina told a federal jury on Wednesday she heard the gunman say during the hate-fuelled rampage that he was not crazy.

Jennifer Pinckney said she hid with her 6-year-old daughter under a desk as Roof opened fire in an adjoining room at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where her husband, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, and parishioners had gathered for a Bible study meeting on June 17, 2015.

"I heard Mr. Roof say, 'I'm not crazy. I have to do this,'" said Pinckney, the first witness to testify for prosecutors who are seeking the death penalty for a crime that shocked the United States.

The sentencing phase of Roof's federal trial opened earlier in the day with the defendant telling jurors that he was representing himself because he did not want them to hear any mental health evidence - but insisting he is not mentally ill.

The same jury last month found Roof guilty of 33 federal counts of hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms charges.

"There's nothing wrong with me psychologically," said Roof, making no mention of the crime or the racist ideology prosecutors have said spurred the massacre.

Roof also did not say during his short opening statement whether he wants to live, nor did he ask any questions of Pinckney when she took the witness stand.

He described for jurors in a calm voice how he had been forced to undergo two mental health evaluations after his attorneys questioned his competency.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled on Monday that Roof was mentally fit to stand trial and act as his own lawyer.

Roof acknowledged that his comments would seem "out of place" following the opening statement by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, who said Roof deserved to be executed.

Williams highlighted Roof's months of planning, his lack of remorse and his motivation for carrying out the crime.

"He killed them because of the colour of their skin, because he thought they were less than people," said Williams, who showed jurors photos of each victim.

Six weeks after Roof's arrest, jailers found a handwritten note in his cell expressing white supremacist views, Williams said.

"I am not sorry," Roof wrote. "I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed."

Convicted South Carolina killer Dylann Roof to jurors: 'Nothing wrong with me psychologically'

Although federal prosecutors began laying out their case Wednesday for why convicted killer Dylann Roof should get the death penalty for gunning down nine black parishioners at a South Carolina Bible study class, the white supremacist did not ask jurors to spare his life.

“Other than the fact that I trust people that I shouldn’t, there is nothing wrong with me psychologically,” Roof said softly during a short opening statement, his first remarks to the jury.

The 22-year-old high school dropout, who was convicted last month and has chosen to represent himself during the sentencing phase of the trial, did not explain or apologize for his crimes. Neither did he address the issue of punishment.

He told jurors that they may have heard that he chose to represent himself to prevent his attorneys from presenting evidence of mental health issues.

“That is absolutely true,” he said as he spoke calmly, if somewhat stiffly, at a lectern. “But it isn’t because I have a mental illness that I don’t want you to know about, and it isn’t because I’m trying to keep it a secret from you. The point is I’m not going to lie to you, either by myself or through someone else.”

The stakes are high for Roof, who was found guilty last month of 33 counts in the June 2015 massacre, including multiple counts of committing a hate crime against black victims, obstructing the exercise of religion and using a firearm to commit murder.

If  the 12-member jury votes unanimously in favor of the death penalty, Roof could become the first person in U.S. history sentenced to death in a federal hate crime trial.

In his opening statement, Assistant. U.S. Atty. Nathan Williams told jurors that Roof had targeted his victims at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church because of the color of their skin and had shown no remorse after the massacre.

Six weeks after Roof's arrest, Williams told the jury, a journal was found in his jail cell.

“I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did,” Roof wrote in the journal. “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Roof added that he did feel sorry, however, for the “innocent white children forced to live in this sick country” and “the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of the lower race.”

“I have shed a tear of self-pity for myself,” he wrote. “I feel pity that I had to do what I did in the first place.”

Williams said prosecutors would present more testimony and evidence over the next few days about Roof’s motives, the impact of his crimes on the victims and his lack of contrition.

“You will see countless tears shed in this courtroom,” he said. “When you see those tears, know that the defendant thinks every one is worth it.”

The Department of Justice is seeking the death penalty on the basis of Roof’s significant premeditation, lack of remorse and animosity toward African Americans. While the government expects to call as many as 38 witnesses in an attempt to persuade jurors that Roof should be executed, Roof plans on calling no witnesses and presenting no evidence.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled Roof competent to represent himself during sentencing. The decision, announced after a daylong hearing that was closed to the public, represented yet another blow for Roof’s court-appointed attorneys, who have failed to convince their client that his best chance of avoiding execution is a mental health defense.

Before courtroom proceedings got underway, the judge issued firm ground rules, specifying that both Roof and prosecuting attorneys address the jury from a center lectern, and do not attempt to approach the jury or the witness stand.

“What I don’t want is a spectacle,” Gergel said, adding that at the same time “I don’t want to give the impression to jury that Mr. Roof is being treated differently.”

Roof, who faces death by lethal injection or life in prison, has the right to represent himself under the 6th Amendment. Yet Gergel has called his decision “unwise,” and many legal experts, including his own attorneys, have questioned whether he can adequately represent himself in a capital case, as well as his decision to withhold potentially crucial evidence about his mental health.

“I expect it to be a charade of a capital sentencing,” said Christopher Adams, a Charleston defense attorney who specializes in federal defense cases and is not involved in this case. “Here you have a guy who clearly is mentally ill, and he is not going to present any mental health evidence. So the jurors are going to be asked to make the toughest decision imaginable under law without any real information …”

During the trial, jurors watched Roof confess in a taped interview with FBI investigators, heard from two survivors who identified him as the shooter and saw closed-circuit television footage of him exiting the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand. Even Roof’s defense attorney admitted his client committed the massacre.

“If anybody ever has been a candidate for the death penalty, Dylann Roof would be a candidate,” said Joseph Darby, a presiding elder of the Beaufort district of the A.M.E. church and the first vice-president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP. “If he is not executed, it would be hard to make the case for anyone else to be executed in America.”

Nationally, momentum for the death penalty is waning: death sentences have plummeted across the country from nearly 300 in 1998 to fewer than 50 in 2015.

Family members who testify during the sentencing phase of the trial are not allowed to tell the jury what penalty they would like Roof to receive.

Two days after the massacre, some relatives of those who died expressed forgiveness at Roof’s bond hearing, calling for God to have mercy on him.  President Obama and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley praised family members for their “grace.”

Typically, during the penalty phase of a trial, the defense presents evidence about background issues such as  childhood upbringing and mental health problems to provide deeper insight into the defendant and encourage jurors to be more lenient.

From the beginning, Roof has balked against the idea of defending himself on the basis that he is mentally ill. “I am morally opposed to psychology,” he scrawled in a journal that investigators found in his car after the massacre. “It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”

If Roof is sentenced to death, the dispute about his choice to represent himself and his withholding of information about his mental health is likely to lead to multiple appeals, legal experts said.

Before the trial began, a rift emerged between Roof and his attorneys as they raised questions about their client’s mental state, asking the judge to declare Roof incompetent to stand trial. Capital defendants often choose to represent themselves “in order to prevent presentation of mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of their trials that they cannot bear to have revealed,” they noted in a court motion.

After ordering a psychiatric competency assessment of Roof, Gergel found him capable of standing trial, stating he had an “extremely high IQ” and was able to understand legal proceedings.

But some legal experts pointed to a difference between mental ability and judgment.

“You can have an understanding of the legal process, but that does not mean you are any less mentally ill or emotionally disturbed,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “To the extent that your extreme mental illness or emotional disturbance effects your perception of the evidence, and effects your perceptions of issues like motive, you may be incapable of making rational trial decisions.”

During the guilt portion of the trial, Roof’s attorney, David Bruck, tried repeatedly to raise the issue of mental illness, drawing attention to his client’s “abnormal” and “delusional” behavior: his seeming inability, a day after the crime, to judge how many people he had killed; his unwillingness to make small talk with investigators; his admission to FBI agents that he didn’t have a best friend.

Roof, he emphasized, was a loner who took hundreds of photos of his cat, yet appeared to have no close connection with any human being.

After the jury found Roof guilty and he reiterated his decision to represent himself in the sentencing phase, his attorneys asked the judge for a second hearing, again raising the question of Roof’s competency. A court-appointed forensic psychiatrist examined Roof last weekend. After interviewing the psychiatrist and a number of other witnesses, Gergel again ruled that Roof remained competent to represent himself.

Even if Roof, who faces a separate death penalty trial in state court later this month, is sentenced to death, he is unlikely to be executed any time soon — partly because death penalty cases involve years of appeals, but also because South Carolina is one of many states that faces challenges in acquiring drugs for lethal injection.

Dylann Roof, Addressing Court, Offers No Apology or Explanation for Massacre

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Sometime in the six weeks after he killed nine Bible study worshipers at this city’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Dylann S. Roof wrote in a journal that he had “not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” On Wednesday morning, standing before the jurors who will decide whether he should be put to death, Mr. Roof again offered no apology, no explanation and no remorse for the horrific massacre.

In a strikingly brief opening statement in the penalty phase of his trial in Federal District Court, where he is representing himself, Mr. Roof repeatedly assured jurors that he was not mentally ill, and left it at that. “There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically,” he said, of a factor that could determine life or death, before striding back to the defense table, taking a deep breath.

By then, Courtroom No. 6 had already been jarred by a reading of two pages from Mr. Roof’s journal, a white supremacist manifesto written in Charleston County’s jail.

“I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did,” Mr. Roof wrote in the journal, which officials seized in August 2015 and a prosecutor introduced during his opening statement. “I am not sorry.”

Mr. Roof, who was then 21, also wrote: “I do feel sorry for the innocent white children forced to live in this sick country and I do feel sorry for the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of the lower race. I have shed a tear of self-pity for myself. I feel pity that I had to do what I did in the first place. I feel pity that I had to give up my life because of a situation that should never have existed.”

As he began to lay out the government’s case for a death sentence, the prosecutor who read from the journal, Assistant United States Attorney Nathan S. Williams, told the jury of 10 women and two men that Mr. Roof’s killing spree had been a premeditated act that had devastated the families of his victims.

“The defendant didn’t stop after shooting one person or two or four or five; he killed nine people,” Mr. Williams said, a few moments before he declared: “The death penalty is justified.”

Later, aided by a slide show of pictures, he described each of the victims and their lives.

The presentations, especially Mr. Roof’s comments and the introduction of the journal, were a startling beginning to the trial’s sentencing phase, which is expected to run into next week. On Dec. 15, after a weeklong first phase, the jury found him guilty of 33 counts, including hate crimes, obstruction of religion resulting in death and firearms charges. Eighteen counts require the jury to decide whether to sentence Mr. Roof, now 22, to either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. A death sentence requires unanimity.

Although many people in the courtroom had already heard Mr. Roof’s raspy, Southern-inflected monotone during the guilt phase of his trial, when prosecutors played a video recording of his confession, his opening statement on Wednesday was the first time he had directly addressed jurors. He chose to allow his court-appointed legal team to represent him during the guilt phase, but sidelined them to represent himself during the penalty phase in order to prevent them from introducing any mitigating evidence regarding his family background of mental capacity.

His decision to spend only three minutes addressing the jury, and to devote the time to insisting that he was not impaired, seemed to solidify the impression of a man unwilling to rely upon what experts believe is his best opportunity to avoid execution: a mental health defense. He has said he does not plan to call witnesses or present evidence in his behalf.

“The point is that I’m not going to lie to you, not by myself or through somebody else,” said Mr. Roof, who spoke from a lectern. As his paternal grandparents watched from the second row on the left side of the courtroom, several women left their seats on the right side, which is reserved for family members of the victims, one of them muttering curses.

Mr. Roof’s minimalist approach stands in sharp contrast to the strategy of Justice Department officials, who could call more than 30 witnesses to try to depict Mr. Roof as remorseless and calculating. The witness list is expected to include at least one survivor of the attack, family members of the victims and federal law enforcement officials.

Prosecutors began on Wednesday morning with Jennifer Benjamin Pinckney, the widow of the church’s slain pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney.

Ms. Pinckney, who had been married to Mr. Pinckney for 15 years, narrated an affectionate and often lighthearted telling of their life together, illustrated by dozens of photographs of her husband — as a young saxophone player in the school band, in a white tuxedo for their wedding, attending the births of their two girls, at family reunions, on Caribbean cruises and trips to Seattle. Often exhausted by his dual schedule as a pastor and state senator, he was shown in several pictures having fallen asleep in the back seat of the family car and on a couch while reading to his daughters.

She talked of birthday dinners with their daughters — one was partial to Red Lobster’s shrimp and crab legs — and of the night of the killings, when Ms. Pinckney and a daughter heard the barrage of gunfire while they were waiting at the church.

When Mr. Roof had the opportunity to cross-examine Ms. Pinckney, he said only, “No questions.”

Mr. Roof and his now-sidelined legal team made no effort to contest his guilt across six days of testimony last month, when prosecutors and their witnesses described the killings in gruesome detail.

As Mr. Roof’s approach to the penalty phase and the government’s evidence emerged on Wednesday, the proceedings seemed to be a partial reflection of the defendant’s writings, which investigators gathered after the massacre at Emanuel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South. In the writings, which include a different journal, an online manifesto and letters to his parents, Mr. Roof railed against African-Americans, condemned psychology as “a Jewish invention,” declared that he had acted alone and made circumscribed expressions of regret, but only for the pain it would cause his family.

At the Bible study, Mr. Roof said almost nothing for nearly 45 minutes as the group of 12 studied the Gospel of Mark. Around 9 p.m., as the parishioners closed their eyes for a final prayer, he removed the Glock .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol he had secreted in a pouch and opened fire. The only explanation he provided to his victims as he methodically gunned them down, according to the testimony of one of the two women who survived the rampage, was, “I have to do this, because y’all are raping our women and y’all are taking over our world.”

He first shot Mr. Pinckney, before aiming his handgun at the parishioners who scrambled to hide under tables. Although investigators said Mr. Roof fired more than 70 rounds of hollow-point ammunition during his rampage, he did not shoot everyone at the Bible study.

But he spared few people he met that night. In addition to Mr. Pinckney, who was also a state senator, the victims included the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lee Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., 74; the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59.

Ms. Pinckney, who had been in the church offices with a daughter when the gunshots began, dialed 911 and waited for the police. Amid the chaos and gunfire, her daughter asked, “Is Daddy going to die?”

Later that night, Ms. Pinckney told her daughters that their father was gone.

Mr. Roof was arrested the next morning in Shelby, N.C., where he confessed to F.B.I. agents and appeared stunned to learn the grim toll of his rampage.

“I wouldn’t believe you,” Mr. Roof replied after an agent suggested to him that nine people had been killed. “There wasn’t even nine people there. Are you guys lying to me?”

Mr. Roof, who is also facing a capital prosecution in state court, reluctantly allowed lawyers to represent him during the trial’s guilt phase, but he took control of his defense during jury selection and again on Wednesday for sentencing proceedings. He disregarded Judge Gergel’s warnings that self-representation, permitted under a 1975 ruling by the United States Supreme Court, was “a bad idea,” and he did not reverse his decision before the judge’s deadline.

Defense lawyers, who had intended to mount a defense rooted in Mr. Roof’s mental health, pointedly resisted his efforts for weeks but, ultimately, were ordered to serve only as standby counsel, a status that allows them to offer guidance but not to make objections or question witnesses.

Mr. Roof’s plans for them to serve a diminished role had become clear by mid-December, when the lead defense lawyer, David I. Bruck, used his closing argument during the trial’s guilt phase to signal to the jury that Mr. Roof might be mentally troubled. Lacing his presentation, his last to jurors before sentencing, with words like “delusional,” “abnormal” and “irrationality,” Mr. Bruck portrayed Mr. Roof as a loner with no meaningful relationships.

On Wednesday, Mr. Roof suggested that jurors disregard Mr. Bruck’s statements.

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