The current mental status of accused Charleston church killer Dylann Roof has emerged as a key issue and may delay the start of his upcoming death penalty trial.
Legal papers on the U.S. District Court internet site made public Friday make it clear that defense and prosecution lawyers are wrangling over the issue of Roof's mental competency. They are also fighting over whether a final hearing on Roof's mental status - now scheduled for Wednesday in Charleston - will be open or closed.
After that hearing, U.S. Judge Richard Gergel will likely issue an order saying whether Roof is mentally fit to stand trial, or whether he should be hospitalized until he is competent.
Under the law, a defendant must be able to understand the nature of the proceedings against him and assist his lawyers in his own defense. Roof, 22, is an avowed white supremacist from the Columbia area. He faces 33 charges including hate crimes in connection with the June 2015 Charleston church massacre, in which 9 African-Americans were killed execution-style. His lawyers have said in open court he will plead guilty and be sentenced to life without parole in prison if prosecutors drop their demand for the death penalty.
According to a defendant's filing in the case made public Friday, U.S. Judge Richard Gergel has already made a finding "that there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to stand trial..."
Although the defense motion does not say when Gergel made that finding, the judge apparently did so after a closed hearing Monday at which the public and prosecutors were excluded. At that hearing, Roof's defense lawyers presented evidence indicating he was not mentally stable.
As prescribed by law when questions of a defendant's mental competence arise, Gergel then appointed an independent mental health professional to examine Roof. That examination is now apparently finished, or near finished, and the results will be given to Gergel.
The results of that examination will likely play a large role in Wednesday's upcoming hearing and may determine if Roof's trial can go on as scheduled.
"If, after the hearing, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him...," the defendant shall be hospitalized, federal law law says.
That hospitalization shall continue until the defendant's mental condition improves to the point where he can stand trial, federal law says.
Defense lawyers are seeking to close Wednesday's hearing about Roof's mental status, according to a filing unsealed Friday.
"Any (open) competency hearing will pose equally grave threats to the defendant's right to a fair trial, to a fair and impartial jury, and to the assistance of counsel," defense lawyers wrote.
However, prosecution lawyers argue in a strongly-worded brief that, for numerous reasons, the Wednesday hearing about Roof's competency should be open to the public and victims.
"The victims should not be held in the dark about the competency hearing," the government argued. "The victims in this case have a right to know what is occurring in this case."
"While the defendant does have a right to a fair trial, so too do the victims have a right to a fair trial, one that affords them access to the information and proceedings that address their experience and loss as well as the person who caused it," the government argued.
Government lawyers also reminded Gergel that U.S. courts are traditionally open and there is "a strong presumption of open proceedings."
Moreover, since the public already knows that Roof's mental competence is an issue, "there is no sufficiently compelling interest in closing the hearing," prosecutors wrote.
Roof's mental status is currently being evaluated in a confidential setting. Judge Gergel is expected to get a report on Roof's competence soon.
"Should the defendant be found incompetent, we presume that the Court would order him transferred to a Bureau medical facility for further evaluation and treatment aimed at restoring him to competence," defense lawyers wrote.
Defense lawyers also indicate they want to delay jury selection now for perhaps an indefinite time, as the matters concerning Roof's competency are legally complex and will likely take a long time to deal with in a manner that will protect Roof's rights.
"With a holiday coming up, we wish to avoid having to make any more last-minute requests for time to resolve the numerous issues of constitutional dimension that seem to be arising now virtually on a daily basis," wrote Roof's defense team, headed by noted anti-death penalty lawyer David Bruck.
"We suggest that the Court adopt a new schedule that avoids resuming jury selection on Nov. 21-22," Bruck and his team wrote.
Gergel announced earlier this week he wanted to start jury selection on Nov. 21, the Monday the week of Thanksgiving.
Gergel had originally planned to start jury selection last Monday, but to everyone's surprise, Roof's lawyers asked for and got a closed court hearing at which last-minute mental competency issues concerning Roof arose. Neither prosecutors nor the public were allowed to attend that hearing.
Source: thestate.com, November 12, 2016
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