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Dylann Roof asks appellate court to overturn death sentence in Charleston church killings

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Attorneys for Dylann Roof, the South Carolina man sentenced to death for killing nine people at a historically Black church in Charleston, asked an appeals court on Tuesday to overturn his conviction and sentence.

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Roof, who was convicted in the June 17, 2015, massacre, was too “disconnected from reality” to represent himself during his trial, his attorneys wrote in a 321-page motion filed in 2020 in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, The Washington Post reported.

“When Dylann Roof represented himself at his capital trial, he was a 22-year-old, ninth-grade dropout diagnosed with schizophrenia-spectrum disorder, autism, anxiety, and depression, who believed his sentence didn’t matter because white nationalists would free him from prison after an impending race war,” according to the filing.

Evidence at Roof’s trial, which included his writings, selfies and videos, portrayed him as a self-described white supremacist who wanted to start a race war by killing Blacks, The State of Columbia reported. To implement his plan, Roof traveled to Charleston and killed nine parishioners as they prayed during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the newspaper reported. Roof received his death sentence after jurors returned guilty verdicts on 33 federal charges, CNN reported.

One of the persons killed was Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, The State reported.

After his federal conviction, Roof pleaded guilty in April 2017 to state murder and attempted murder charges and received nine consecutive life sentences and three consecutive 30-year sentences, according to CNN.

At least two of the three judges on the panel expressed skepticism over Roof’s argument that the trial judge ignored evidence of Roof’s delusions about white nationalists and was wrong to find him competent to stand trial, the Post reported.

Judge Kent A. Jordan noted that being mentally ill or being “a person who is full of hate” is not the same as being incompetent.

“Is every neo-Nazi incompetent to stand trial?” the judge asked Roof’s attorneys. “It sounds like that’s what you are saying.”

Roof’s attorney, Sapna Mirchandani, said his diagnosis was long-standing and affirmed by experts.

“This is actually a medically defined term that multiple experts said applied to him,” Mirchandani told the judge. It wasn’t just a belief.”

The brief filed by Roof’s attorneys asks the appellate court to vacate his convictions and death sentence, or remand his case to court for a “proper competency evaluation.”

“The federal trial that resulted in his death sentence departed so far from the standard required when the government seeks the ultimate price that it cannot be affirmed,” the attorneys wrote.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel held two competency hearings for Roof, according to The Associated Press. One occurred before the start of his trial, and one before its sentencing phase, to determine if Roof could act as his own attorney for that portion of the trial.

“Though Roof’s mental state was the subject of two competency hearings, and five experts found him delusional -- findings swiftly dismissed by the court, in its rush to move the case along -- jurors never heard any of that evidence,” Roof’s attorneys wrote. “Instead, prosecutors told them Roof was a calculated killer with no signs of mental illness. Given no reason to do otherwise, jurors sentenced Roof to death. Roof’s crime was tragic, but this Court (the 4th Circuit) can have no confidence in the jury’s verdict.”

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