Lawyers for Charleston shooter say he has autism, experienced racist delusions that made him incompetent to stand trial

Dylann Roof enters a Charleston County courtroom for an April 10, 2017, plea hearing. Roof has been on death row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., since 2017, but appeals surrounding his capital conviction will likely drag on for several more years in federal court. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Oral arguments in the appellate case for Dylann Roof, the 27-year-old man convicted of killing nine Black churchgoers in 2015, concluded Tuesday morning.

Before the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, Roof’s attorneys argued that their client’s “delusional belief” that he would be freed from prison by white nationalists — only if he presented himself as a “perfect specimen” by withholding mental health evidence — made him incompetent to stand trial.

A DOJ civil rights lawyer, Ann O’Connell Adams, refuted their claims and said Roof himself acknowledged that his rescuing from prison likely wouldn’t happen.

“Roof confirmed that he understood there was a high likelihood that he would be sentenced to death, and that the chance of being rescued was very small,” Adams said. “Roof was not making an irrational calculation that his best way to stay alive was to keep out the mental health mitigation evidence.”

Roof’s team asked the court to vacate his federal convictions and death sentence or move his case to court for a “proper competency hearing,” which they argue wasn’t done at trial. Appellate attorney Sapna Mirchandani said a US District Court “blinded itself” from learning whether Roof acted out of prejudice or mental illness in 2017 after he barred the jury from hearing mitigation by representing himself.

Alexandra Yates said in the three-hour hearing that her client waived his right to counsel because his trial judge delivered an ultimatum: either get rid of his attorneys and exclude mental health evidence, or keep them and allow the evidence in.

“The district court, relying on then-existing case law, told Mr. Roof he could have counsel, or he could exclude mental health evidence, but he could not have it both ways,” Yates said.

She added that the court erred in its application of the law under McCoy v Louisiana, a Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that the Sixth Amendment grants a defendant the right to decide whether to maintain innocence at all costs, even if counsel advises them to admit guilt to avoid the death penalty. The case revolves around Louisiana resident Robert McCoy, who was charged with the murder of his estranged wife’s son, mother, and step-father.

In a similar fashion to Roof, McCoy disagreed with attorneys and eventually discharged his public defender, leading his parents to retain a lawyer for him. McCoy testified in his own defense, presenting a complex alibi that involved a widespread, interstate police conspiracy to frame him. He was convicted of all three killings.

During the federal trial, Roof strongly opposed his trial team’s push to include mental health evidence, telling jurors he was completely sane and that “anyone who hates anything in their mind has a good reason” to commit the killings. Roof’s attorneys say he’s autistic, which Roof has said he would “rather die” than be characterized as, claiming it dilutes his true reason for the mass shooting.

In a brief filed January, the shooter’s legal team said experts agreed that “Roof either suffered from or exhibited symptoms of autism-spectrum disorder” including trouble making eye contact, disorganized thinking, and disconnection from reality.

Ann O’Connell Adams said Tuesday that experts called to testify by federal prosecutors proved Roof wasn’t autistic, didn’t show any symptoms, and wouldn’t have been able to fake it barring psychosis.

At the state level, Roof was given nine consecutive life sentences as a “safety-net” in case of a possible appeal to ensure he would die in prison, sparing the victims’ families the emotional burden of a second trial.

The 14 judges from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have all recused themselves from handling Roof’s case due to conflict of interest. Judge Jay Richardson, who serves on the court, helped prosecute Roof as an Assistant US Attorney. Three judges from other federal appellate circuits took their place.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, Roof’s arguments were submitted for decision by the court and the hearing was adjourned. It was live-streamed by audio-only on YouTube, where up to 300 people watched it at the same time.

If Roof’s direct appeal in the 4th Circuit fails, he can file a 2255 appeal to “vacate, set aside or correct the sentence” handed down by a federal district court, or request that the same court review the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence. If those are both unsuccessful, Roof will be left to petition the US Supreme Court, or seek a presidential pardon from Joe Biden, who promised he would work to end federal executions as part of his campaign.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden has “grave concerns” about capital punishment earlier this year, however, has provided no updates on whether Biden has taken steps to end the federal death penalty despite mounting pressure from activists opposed to capital punishment.

As Vice President, Biden attended the funeral of state senator Clementa C. Pickney, one of Roof’s victims, who also worked as a pastor for the church. Biden has made frequent references to the shooting, saying that a visit to Mother Emanuel helped him process grief from the death of his son, Beau.

“I went back to the church because I found particularly … that there’s that famous phrase from Kierkegaard, ‘Faith sees best in darkness,’ “ Biden said. “It gives me some reason to have hope and purpose.”

Roof is held on federal death row at USP Terre Haute, where he awaits execution. The federal death chamber was dusted off after a 17-year hiatus last year by President Trump, who oversaw the executions of 13 federal inmates — the most since 1896 under Grover Cleveland.