Dylann Roof to act as own attorney in church shooting trial

FILE - This June 18, 2015, file photo, provided by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof. The Justice Department intends to seek the death penalty against Roof, the man charged with killing nine black parishioners last year in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP, file)
FILE - This June 18, 2015, file photo, provided by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof. The Justice Department intends to seek the death penalty against Roof, the man charged with killing nine black parishioners last year in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP, file)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A judge has allowed the white man accused of fatally shooting nine black parishioners in a Charleston church last year to defend himself as jury selection continues.

U.S District Judge Richard Gergel on Monday reluctantly approved what he called Roof’s “unwise” request. Roof, 22, is charged with hate crimes, obstruction of religion and other counts in the June 17, 2015, shootings at Emanuel AME Church. It’s the first of two death-penalty trials Roof faces stemming from the shootings. A look at what the coming weeks will bring:

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ACTING AS HIS OWN LAWYER

Roof’s decision to be his own attorney followed a three-week psychological exam and a hearing to determine his competence to stand trial. It also came just before the individual questioning of jurors was set to begin.

Gergel ruled Roof competent on Friday, leaving him no choice under the U.S. Constitution but to let Roof follow his wishes to defend himself.

After Gergel made his decision, noted death-penalty lawyer David Bruck slid over and let Roof sit in the lead chair at the defense table. He and other defense lawyers are available if Roof has questions.

Roof consulted Bruck a few times as the first jurors were questioned Monday, objecting only once to say he was worried about a potential juror’s comment that the crime was perhaps worse than others because it happened in a church.

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LENGTHY JURY SELECTION

Three thousand potential jurors received summonses to report to the Charleston Federal Courthouse in September. Preliminary screenings whittled that number down to 748, and a review of potential juror questionnaires further reduced the pool to 516. Starting Monday, they began to return to the courthouse in small groups to be questioned individually by the judge.

When 70 qualified jurors are picked, prosecutors and Roof can use strikes to dismiss those they don’t want, until 12 jurors and six alternates are seated.

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A LENGTHY TRIAL

The trial is expected to run into January with a break over Christmas. It will be in two phases: the first to decide Roof’s guilt or innocence and, if he is convicted, a second to determine if he should be sentenced to life in prison or death.

The trial last year of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took about two months for jury selection, with weather and other delays. The guilt and sentencing phases took almost nine weeks.

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FOCUS ON SENTENCING

The focus of the trial is expected to be on the sentencing phase. Before they stepped aside, defense attorneys said numerous times during earlier hearings that Roof was willing to plead guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table. Government prosecutors pursuing the death penalty say Roof talked of starting a race war and posed with the Confederate battle flag before the killings.

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ANOTHER TRIAL NEXT YEAR

Roof faces a second death-penalty trial early next year in state court, where he faces nine counts of murder. A state judge is ordering 600 prospective jurors to report to the Charleston County Courthouse on Jan. 17 for initial screening. His order says the trial will begin on or after Jan. 30. It’s not clear when the federal case will wrap up. For now, Roof has attorneys representing him in the state case.

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CHARLESTON IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Taking place simultaneously and just across the street from jury selection in the Roof case is testimony in the trial of Michael Slager. The white former North Charleston police officer faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder in the shooting death of Walter Scott, a black man who was shot in the back as he fled from a traffic stop. Community leaders have urged residents to show unity and refrain from violence as the cases are being heard.

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