COLUMBIA, S.C. —
The judge in the death penalty trial of Dylann Roof believes it's possible the white man charged with gunning down nine black parishioners in Charleston last year may not be mentally competent to stand trial, according to newly unsealed court documents.
A defense motion unsealed Friday mentions U.S. Judge Richard Gergel's finding that it's reasonable to believe Roof "may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect." The motion says the judge's finding doesn't alter Roof's constitutional rights.
Gergel ordered another competency exam for Roof earlier this week, one day after halting jury selection, because of the defense motion. He held a hearing with only himself, Roof and defense lawyers present to consider the defense motion.
"The court is mindful that this delay in jury selection may be disappointing to some," reads Tuesday's order. But "under the present circumstances, the court finds this brief delay in jury selection to serve the ends of justice."
The judge expects a report on the evaluation Monday and will hold a hearing Wednesday. Gergel plans to rule within days whether Roof is competent and, if so, begin jury selection for Roof's trial Nov. 21.
Much of the unsealed defense motion is redacted, including several lines preceding the reference to Gergel's "reasonable cause" finding.
If Roof is declared incompetent, he should be transferred to a Bureau of Prisons hospital for further evaluation and treatment "aimed at restoring him to competence," the motion reads. Roof's attorneys want the doctor's report disclosed to them first.
They also want Wednesday's hearing to be closed and any disputes about the competency finding to be sealed.
The prosecution opposes both requests, saying the "victims should not be held in the dark."
Prosecutors have asked that Wednesday's hearing be open to the public.
"Particularly in light of the strong interests of the victims to be present for the hearing, there is no overriding interest in closing the hearing," reads the document signed by acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake.
About 70 motions, documents and orders have been filed in the case since September. The overwhelming majority have been sealed from public view.
Roof is charged with hate crimes, obstruction of religion and other counts in the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Authorities said he sat with 12 people in a prayer meeting for nearly an hour before firing dozens of times, killing nine and leaving three unharmed so they could tell the world the shootings were because he hated black people.
Gergel's order may delay opening statements until 2017. The judge plans to question the 500 prospective jurors in groups of 10, twice a day, until he qualifies 70 for lawyers to choose from. That process is expected to take several weeks.
Roof's lawyers have said previously that he would plead guilty to the charges in federal court if prosecutors would agree not to seek the death penalty.
State prosecutors also plan a death penalty trial for Roof on nine counts of murder after the federal trial is finished.