CHARLESTON, S.C. – Families of nine black worshippers killed in a Charleston church got a chance Thursday to air concerns about the case to a federal judge, who reaffirmed his decision to keep defendant Dylann Roof's competency hearing next week closed to the public.
Some relatives talked about how the trial delays hurt them. Others say it will be hard to deal with the proceedings in December as Christmas neared. They all asked for Monday's competency hearing to be open.
"I really want you to consider what kind of a signal you are sending to the community," said Alana Jackson, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons Sr.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said he understood their concerns. But after also hearing from lawyers hired by The Associated Press and other media outlets, he said his mind hadn't changed.
The hearing will include extensive statements made by Roof that might not be allowed at his death penalty trial. But they could find their way to jurors and taint their view of the defendant just days before jury selection is set to begin, Gergel said.
"None of us are served by not doing this the right way and then having to do the trial all over again," the judge said.
Only prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge and court staff will be inside the courtroom Monday for Roof's competency hearing. Gergel promised to issue his ruling on whether Roof, 22, understands the hate crime, obstruction of religion and other charges against him and can help his attorneys in his defense over the long Thanksgiving weekend.
That way, if Roof is found competent, jury selection can begin Nov. 28. And if Roof is not competent, he will immediately be sent for treatment at a mental hospital at a federal prison until he regains competency.
Roof's lawyers questioned his competency earlier this month on the eve of jury selection. They have carefully ensured their reasons for wondering about his mental state have not become public, and Gergel has issued several redacted motions and rulings.
Prosecutors have filed court papers saying Roof appears competent to them because he has shown proper behavior toward court personnel and been attentive at other hearings. They wanted the competency hearing open.
Having the hearing open could help the defense because it could help people understand what drove the defendant to commit such a terrible act, creating sympathy, said Carl Muller, a lawyer hired by several media outlets.
But Gergel said he had another, quite modern reason to close the hearing. One question posed to potential jurors on a survey asked where they got their news. Gergel said he expected about 15 percent of them to say social media. Instead, it was closer to 70 percent, making it much harder to avoid seeing coverage from the case.
"I have said to them, 'Let's try to avoid the newspaper of TV,'" the judge said. "But what if it pops up on their iPhone?"
Gergel insisted he isn't trying to hide anything. Along with a written ruling, the judge said he also will release a redacted transcript of the hearing.
"As much as we can disclose, as soon as we can disclose," Gergel promised.