Because Mr. Roof chose to represent himself, hoping to prevent the introduction of evidence about his background and mental health, the jury that found him guilty of 33 counts and condemned him to death never heard those assessments. The judge in the case, Richard M. Gergel of United States District Court, did know, but he did not find that Mr. Roof’s mental condition rendered him incompetent to stand trial or to represent himself.
Mr. Roof’s lawyers, who were sidelined during the sentencing phase of the trial, disagreed vigorously. But they were largely stymied from arguing that Mr. Roof’s disabilities were so debilitating that he should not be held fully accountable for the murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
One of the unsealed court filings discloses that Mr. Roof wrote to prosecutors in November to complain about the approach taken by his legal team. “The defendant’s letter,” his lawyers wrote in a motion, “reveals a deep rupture in the attorney-client relationship.”
What documents were made public?
Judge Gergel sealed hundreds of court filings before and during the trial, including those concerning Mr. Roof’s mental health. He now plans to release as many as he can on a rolling basis without compromising a possible state trial on murder charges. This week, he unsealed a first batch of 175.
They do not include the documents most critical to understanding Mr. Roof’s actions, including psychiatric evaluations ordered by the court or that may have been requested by his own lawyers. The judge also did not make available transcripts of two competency hearings that were closed to the public. But he did unseal several defense motions that hint at the case Mr. Roof’s lawyers hoped to present.
What do those documents say?
In a motion filed shortly before the trial began in December, Mr. Roof’s lawyers asked for special scheduling accommodations like shortened court days and frequent breaks. That motion cited findings by Dr. James C. Ballenger, the court-appointed psychiatrist who evaluated Mr. Roof in jail in mid-November, that he “suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder, a Mixed Substance Abuse Disorder, a Schizoid Personality Disorder, depression by history, and a possible Autistic Spectrum Disorder.”
The document also revealed that the defense offered evidence of an autism diagnosis at a competency hearing on Nov. 21 and 22. The hearing also featured testimony “that the defendant’s high IQ is compromised by a significant discrepancy between his ability to comprehend and to process information and a poor working memory,” the motion states.
Mr. Roof, 22, displayed little expression or emotion during his trial, even when sentenced and when confronted directly by dozens of family members of the victims. In their filing, the lawyers cited their own observations that Mr. Roof focused on nonessential details, had trouble processing multiple sources of information, demonstrated an extreme need for predictability and became easily overwhelmed.
A separate filing disclosed the odd interplay in February 2015 between Mr. Roof and a psychologist, Dr. Thomas G. Hiers, the former executive director of the Charleston/Dorchester Community Mental Health Center. It began when Dr. Hiers saw an anonymous post on Craigslist by a young man seeking someone to join him on a tour of Charleston. The ad specified “No Jews, queers, or n___s,” and included a photograph of a man that Dr. Hiers later identified as Mr. Roof.
Taken aback by the language, Dr. Hiers reached out to the man, urging him to consider different ways of looking at the world, according to the defense motion. “The defendant responded,” the motion said, “by thanking Dr. Hiers for the suggestion and said Dr. Hiers seemed like a nice man, but said he could not take the suggestion because ‘I am so depressed I cannot get out of bed. My life is wasted. I have no friends even though I am cool.’”
Dr. Hiers, who declined to comment on Thursday, tried to arrange a meeting between Mr. Roof and a mental health professional near his home but Mr. Roof never responded, the motion said.
Was Mr. Roof too impaired to stand trial or to be sentenced to death?
Clearly Judge Gergel was not persuaded that Dr. Ballenger’s diagnoses meant Mr. Roof did not surpass the rather low legal threshold for competency — that a defendant must be able to understand court proceedings and assist in his case.
The disorders listed by the psychiatrist do not necessarily cause severe impairment, even in combination. Nor do they particularly suggest the kind of deep-seated psychosis or delusion associated with criminals who cannot appreciate the severity of their acts.
Schizoid personality disorder, for instance, is distinct from schizophrenia, although the two conditions can share some traits. It is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “a pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings.” Social anxiety disorder, according to the text, refers to a “marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.”
Based on Mr. Roof’s own writings, his confession and the views of friends and workmates cited in the unsealed documents, those conditions would seem to apply. But the prosecution also used Mr. Roof’s own words to demonstrate his premeditation, planning and purpose (that he hoped to start a race war), as well as his lack of remorse. “I felt like I had to do it,” Mr. Roof told the jury in his closing argument, “and I still feel like I had to do it.”
Source: The New York Times, Kevin Sack, February 2, 2017
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