Dylann Roof-Individual Autonomy vs. Institutional Integrity

Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a Charleston church, has been sentenced to death. The jury deliberated a mere three hours before unanimously delivering a sentence of death to the 22-year-old. [Read more on the verdict here]. Mr. Roof elected to represent himself during the sentencing phase of his trial. The question of whether Mr. Roof should be permitted to represent himself implicates difficult and competing values; the defendant’s autonomy versus the integrity of our criminal justice system.

Background on Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof (21 years old) went to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. He killed nine people  and injured several others. Prior to the shooting, Mr. Roof published a manifesto on the internet with racial slurs, proclamations of white superiority, and opposition to integration.

Mr. Roof was charged in a 33-count indictment for violations of the Hate Crime Act resulting in death or involving an attempt to kill, obstruction of exercise of religion resulting in death or involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence. His charges included ones eligible for the death penalty and the Department of Justice sought the death penalty.

Mr. Roof’s attorney during the guilt phase, David I. Bruck, told the jury in his closing that Mr. Roof subscribed to “the mad idea that he can make things better by massacring the most virtuous, kind and gentle people he could ever have found.” Attorney Bruck also used “delusional” and a psychiatric term during the closing. (via The New York Times). The guilt trial took place over approximately a week and the jury handed down a guilty verdict on all counts after about two hours of deliberation. (via The Washington Post).

Dylann Roof’s Pro Se Representation in the Penalty Phase

Despite Mr. Roof’s attorney arguing in court filings that Mr. Roof “has no right to represent himself in a capital trial, and even less so at the penalty phase[,]” the district judge permitted Mr. Roof to represent himself during the sentencing phase. Mr. Roof had written in his journal that he is “morally opposed to psychology. It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they dont [sic].” (via The New York Times).

Mr. Roof’s opening statement (via CNN) during the penalty phase:

My opening statement may seem a little out of place.
You may have heard the reason I chose to represent myself so to prevent my lawyers from misrepresentation. That’s absolutely true.
It isn’t because I am trying to keep a secret.
I am not going to lie to you through myself.
My lawyers forced me to go through two mental competency hearings, not because I have an issue, but it is going to be revealed.
In that respect my self-representation has accomplished nothing, you say, what is the point? Point is that I am not going to lie to you.
Other than the fact that I trusted people I shouldn’t have… (inaudible).
There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically.
Anything you heard from my lawyers in the last phase (of the trial), I ask you to forget it. That’s the last thing.

During the sentencing phase Mr. Roof did not cross-examine any of the government’s witnesses and presented no evidence. According to the local paper, in his closing, he “opt[ed] to address the jury with a disjointed and convoluted statement that lasted less than five minutes.” His closing included statements such as

“Anyone, including the prosecution, who thinks I am filled with hate has no idea what real hate is”
“I think it’s safe to say that someone in their right mind wouldn’t go into a church and kill people”
“You might remember in my confession to the FBI, I told them I had to do it. Obviously, that isn’t true because I didn’t have to do it. I didn’t have to do anything. But what I meant when I said that was I felt like I had to do that. And I still feel like I had to do it.”
“Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the prosecution hates me since they are the ones trying to give me the death penalty?” “You could say, ‘Of course they hate you. Everyone hates you. They have good reason to hate you.’ I’m not denying that. My point is that anyone who hates anything, in their mind, has a good reason.”

The jury returned with a death sentence after deliberating approximately three hours. (via NPR).

Self-Representation in the Criminal Justice System

Around 50 years ago, Anthony Faretta was facing  grand theft charges in California and had been appointed a public defender. Mr. Faretta sought to represent himself,  informed the believing the public defenders were too loaded down with a heavy case load. The judge initially accepted his waiver of counsel, but then reversed, appointing the public defender and rejecting Mr. Faretta’s overtures for self-representation. Mr. Faretta’s appeal culminated in the Supreme Court finding it unconstitutional to force a lawyer upon a defendant who voluntarily and intelligently elects to proceed without counsel.

Mr. Roof’s self-representation presents the uneasy factual pattern of a defendant exercising his right to self-representation, but at the cost of possibly obtaining a death sentence through a faulty trial. This difficult quandary  of a defendant’s autonomy versus society’s interest in ensuring integrity within its criminal justice system divided the Court (6-3) in Faretta.

Although the majority found the right of self-representation was embodied within the Sixth Amendment, they noted that this ruling seemed to contradict other cases that held counsel’s aid was essential to ensure the defendant a fair trial. Mr. Roof’s defense of himself should give pause to an assertion he had a fair trial. We do not permit an automatic death penalty, but require a death sentence express a moral judgment based on the unique facts of the case and the defendant. Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was represented by a qualified, competent attorney. Mr. Roof’s closing argument is simply not comparable to the 90 minute closing with a developed argument and supporting evidence about how a radicalized older brother filled the void of absent parents in Mr. Tsarnaev’s adolescence.

The majority, however, rather cursorily dismissed a situation like Mr. Roof’s, acknowledging the prospect self-representation may be detrimental, but the defendant’s choice must nevertheless “be honored out of that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.” (quotations and citation omitted). Mr. Roof’s decision, however, appears to be based on hostility to the concept of mental disease given his journal comments about psychology being a phony invention by Jews. This explanation validates Justice Blackmun’s fear that States “subordinate the solemn business of conducting a criminal prosecution to the whimsical…caprice of every accused who wishes to use his trial for personal or political self-gratification.” That a fair trial producing a just sentence may have been subordinated in favor of Mr. Roof’s conspiracy theory on mental health is troubling. Mr. Roof’s decision is made even more inscrutable as Mr. Roof himself argued mental illness during his closing, noting that “I think it’s safe to say that someone in their right mind wouldn’t go into a church and kill people….” Chief Justice Burger believed the criminal justice system “should not be available as an instrument of self-destruction[,]” yet insuring justice in every criminal trial “is ill-served, and the integrity of and public confidence in the system are undermined when an easy conviction is obtained due to the defendant’s ill-advised decision to waive counsel.” Though Mr. Roof may have been competent and voluntarily elected to waive counsel, neither the defendant’s autonomy nor society’s interest in achieving justice is served if the defendant presents the very defense that was the basis for refusing counsel’s aid.

Although much of this post has been critical of Mr. Roof’s self-representation, it is not clear permitting him to proceed pro se was wrong. First, the Farretta opinion does support permitting Mr. Roof’s decision. Also, there is force to the Faretta majority’s point that the defendant retain some autonomy over the proceeding for which he would ultimately bear the consequences. Mr. Roof’s case is a more difficult application given the literal life and death stakes, coupled with a youthful and irrational defendant. A possible solution to a quandary like that created by Mr. Roof is for  the prosecution present mitigating evidence in their role as a gatekeeper. There would likely be obstacles to doing so, such as the defendant’s refusal to cooperate, but the prosecution in preparing its own case likely comes across mitigating evidence or could conceivably gather some such evidence without serious hardship. Admittedly, this is not a perfect solution, but the prosecution taking some steps to show the jury mitigating evidence, where the defendant has elected to represent himself or herself and refuses to present such evidence, may help to preserve the integrity of our system.