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Accused Charleston Church Shooter Allowed to Act as Own Attorney

FILE - Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina, June 18, 2015.
FILE - Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina, June 18, 2015.

The white man accused of fatally shooting nine black parishioners at a church was allowed Monday to act as his own attorney, opening the door to courtroom spectacles at his death penalty trial, including Dylann Roof questioning survivors of the attack and relatives of the dead.

Roof's decision to represent himself comes months after he offered to plead guilty in exchange for the promise of life in prison. But federal prosecutors have refused to take the death penalty off the table in the slayings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Until now, Roof has been represented by one of the nation's most respected capital defenders.

He joins a long line of high-profile defendants who acted as their own attorneys, often with poor results. Serial killer Ted Bundy, Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammed and Army Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, ended up with death sentences.

After firing their lawyers, Long Island Rail Road shooter Colin Ferguson was sentenced to 200 years in prison, and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was sent away for life.

Defendants who act as their own lawyers generally want to bring attention to their causes and publicize their actions. That almost always runs counter to the advice of lawyers, who urge them not to incriminate themselves.

"They think they have a message and that's unfortunately what leads to these crimes in the first place,'' said New York attorney Tiffany Frigenti, author of an article called "Flying Solo Without a License: The Right of Pro Se Defendants to Crash and Burn'' for her law school journal.

Pro se representation can also lead to uncomfortable courtroom encounters between defendants and their victims or those victims' families if they are questioned by the very person who is accused of shattering their lives.

"It can seem beneficial. Nobody believes in your cause and case more than you,'' Frigenti said. "But it only works that way in very rare cases - usually appeals.''

With Roof acting in his own defense, there is plentiful opportunity for explosive or awkward courtroom moments. Just hours after his arrest, some of the victims' relatives attended Roof's initial court appearance and said they forgave him and would pray for him. If he continues as his own lawyer, Roof could end up questioning those same family members in court.

In approving Roof's request to act as his own lawyer, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel also appointed his defense team to stay on as standby counsel, available for advice and assistance throughout the trial. That team includes celebrated death penalty attorney David Bruck, who slid down one seat and let Roof take the lead chair after the judge's order Monday.

Known as a hard-charging lawyer with deep opposition to the death penalty, Bruck's record is mixed. He kept Susan Smith off South Carolina's death row for sending her car into a lake with her two children strapped inside, but he could not keep a federal jury from sentencing Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death last year.

Roof's motion came the same day jury selection resumed in the case, a process halted Nov. 7 after lawyers for Roof questioned his ability to understand the case against him. After a hasty two-day competency hearing, Gergel last week ruled that Roof was competent to stand trial.

Roof has also been found competent in state court, where prosecutors plan a second death-penalty trial on nine counts of murder.

During the juror qualification, Roof sat at the defense table occasionally conferring with Bruck. He registered few objections to jurors, agreeing with Gergel about a man's statements that the crime being in a church made it more worrisome to him and also saying a woman's death penalty views made her a good juror. Otherwise, Roof sat in his chair, sometimes looking at papers spread out before him.

Beginning Monday, 20 potential jurors per day are reporting to the courthouse for individual questioning by the judge. When 70 qualified jurors are picked, attorneys can use strikes to dismiss those they don't want, until 12 jurors and six alternates are seated.

According to police, Roof sat through nearly an hour of prayer and Bible study at the church with its pastor and 11 others before pulling a gun from his fanny pack and firing dozens of shots.

Roof shouted racial insults at the six women and three men he is charged with killing and at the survivors, authorities said. He said he left three people unharmed so they could tell the world the shootings were because he hated black people.