ATLANTA, Ga – Dylann Roof, the accused church shooter who is on trial for his life in Charleston, S.C., announced on Monday that he is representing himself, against the advice of the federal judge presiding in the case.
That’s a big mistake, according to several Atlanta legal experts.
“There’s an old saying, ‘He who represents himself in his own trial has a fool for a client,’” says Charles Mittelstadt, a criminal defense investigator. “There are absolutely no positives in a decision like this.”
Roof is facing 33 charges stemming from the June 2015 shooting deaths of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Roof filed a motion under seal Sunday to represent himself, and Judge Richard Gergel of U.S. District Court granted the motion moments before jury selection began.
“It’s an incredibly unwise decision,” says Stephen Lowry of Atlanta-based trial attorneys Harris Penn Lowry. "These are very complex cases, and attorneys who have no experience in death penalty cases at all shouldn’t be taking them, much less someone with no experience at all. You’re talking about 33 charges and hundreds of thousands of pages of records and evidence. I can’t imagine how he’s going to navigate through all of that.”
“It rarely makes sense in any case for a defendant to represent himself, especially if they don’t have a legal background or have no understanding of procedure and process,” says Mittelstadt, who served on 11Alive’s panel of legal experts in its daily analysis of the Ross Harris hot car death trial. “What makes matters more complicated is that this is a death penalty case. You not only have the trial’s first phase, which is the guilt or innocence phase, but also the mitigation phase, in which jurors, if they find him guilty, decide whether to impose the death penalty.”
On Monday, Gergel noted that lawyers representing Roof are experienced capital defenders who have legal expertise that would benefit him.
“I think it is wise for you to be represented by counsel and to get the benefit of that experience,” Gergel said to Roof, who stood before him wearing a white and blue-gray prison jumpsuit. Gergel further ordered that Roof’s existing defense team act as standby counsel and then asked the defendant whether he would like those lawyers to sit at the defense tables or in seats behind him.
Roof said, “At the table.”
With that, Gergel asked lawyer David Bruck, the former lead counsel for Roof who has vast experience in defending death-penalty cases, to shift one seat over, ceding that top spot to Roof.
"As the trial begins, the next question is whether Roof will truly attempt to mount a defense or turn the trial into a circus and a mockery of the criminal justice system,” Mittelstadt says.
Lowry says Roof may be wanting to make a political statement by taking the lead in the case.
“He may be thinking he’s going to be found guilty anyway and this is a chance for him to get in front of the cameras,” Lowry says.