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April 12, 2017

Might Dylann Roof have claimed ineffective assistance of counsel if he didn't get sentenced to death?

Most murderers who get sentenced to death at some point claim their lawyers were constitutionally ineffective. But this new local article, headlined "Dylann Roof calls his lawyers 'sneakiest people I ever met,' says mental health defense was 'a lie'," suggests one high-profile condemned mass murderer might have claimed his lawyer was ineffective if he wasn't sentenced to death. The full article is fascinating, and here is how it gets started:

Calling his attorneys "the sneakiest group of people I have ever met,” Dylann Roof reached out to federal prosecutors on the eve of his hate crimes trial in an effort to scuttle a planned mental health defense aimed at sparing him the death penalty.

Roof blistered his legal team in a three-page jailhouse letter, accusing them of tricking him into undergoing tests to challenge his competency to stand trial for killing nine black worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. Roof told prosecutors he wanted no part of this strategy, which he labeled "a lie."

"Because I have no real defense, my lawyers have been forced to grasp at straws and present a pathetic, fraudulent excuse for a defense in my name," he wrote in early November. "They have regularly told me in an aggressive manner that I have no say in my own defense, that my input doesn't matter, and that there is nothing I can do about it."

Roof's letter was among more than 70 filings that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel unsealed Tuesday – one day after the 23-year-old white supremacist pleaded guilty to nine counts of murder in state court. Though Roof’s federal trial ended in January with a death sentence, Gergel had been reluctant to release records about his mental status while the state case was pending.

The newly unsealed documents show procedural disagreements over how Roof’s mental health would be evaluated and growing discord between the killer and his top-flight legal team of capital defense specialists. Roof railed at their “slick” tactics, and they in turn expressed frustration with a “delusional” client who seemed preoccupied with fantasies that white supremacists would break him out of prison and make him governor of South Carolina, the documents show.

In the handwritten November letter to “Prosecution,” Roof alleged that his legal team had told him he was being tested to determine if a thyroid condition had affected his brain when they were really compiling evidence to challenge his competency. He said he wanted the people trying to convict him to know that “what my lawyers plan to say in my defense is a lie and will be said without my consent or permission.”

“My lawyers have purposely kept me in the dark about my defense until the last minute in order to prevent me from being able to do anything about it, which is why I have been forced to write to you,” he stated. “Throughout my case they have used scare tactics, threats, manipulation, and outright lies to further their own, not my, agenda.” He warned prosecutors not to let his legal team “fool you or the court like they’ve fooled me.”

Prosecutors notified Roof's lawyers after receiving the letter, and lead defense attorney David Bruck agreed that Gergel, the trial judge, needed to see the missive, according to a chain of emails. After a closed-door meeting on Nov. 7, Roof's lawyers pleaded with the judge to delay planned jury selection in the case so Roof could undergo an extensive mental competency review. They repeatedly described Roof as delusional, and noted his "depression, extreme anxiety and autism spectrum disorder."

They stated that their tenuous working relationship with him had suffered "a severe rupture" when he "openly attempted to sabotage his own case" by reaching out to prosecutors. "(W)e are now faced with a client who would rather die than be labeled mentally ill or neuro-developmentally impaired, and who would rather communicate and ally himself with those who propose to execute him than us," his attorneys wrote.

The attorneys stated that Roof believed "the very white nationalists whom he considers his allies" would turn on him and persecute him for his "perceived infirmities" if he were to be labeled incompetent. They stated that Roof had "an irrational belief that being labeled mentally impaired will affect the defendant's standing with some hypothetical white nationalists whom the defendant has never met or communicated with — and cannot even name — but whom he believes may appoint him to a high government position some day."

They attached notes indicating that Roof had been so distracted by his delusional ideas that he was unable to respond to the basic needs of his defense. Among his odd notions was a fantasy that white supremacists would stage a prison break to rescue him from captivity, they said. "His single-minded focus on being rescued and made governor of South Carolina makes salient to him things that are irrational and he cannot rationally assist counsel as a result," they stated.

April 12, 2017 at 11:10 AM | Permalink


At some level he must have agreed with the assigned counsel, as he did not simply plead guilty. Defense attorneys may take many choices away from the client but that is one they may not.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 12, 2017 11:45:09 AM

Doug, your question is silly. A defendant doesn't have a cognizable right to a death sentence, which means that the claim of IAC doesn't fly from the Sixth Amendment---could he sue for damages---that's a different question.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 12, 2017 12:08:33 PM

federalist, a defendant does not have "a cognizable right" to any particular sentence, so that is a foolish way to frame any Sixth Amendment issue with respect to sentencing outcomes.

That said, I was not really asking an formal doctrinal question, but rather seeking to highlight how the disconnect/failings between client and counsel here was in various ways quite different than the disconnect/failings claimed in so many other capital cases.

Posted by: Doug B | Apr 12, 2017 1:23:20 PM

Fed. Think about the deaths of your loved ones. Would you prefer those deaths or the needle?

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 12, 2017 2:12:28 PM

He pled not guilty and wanted the services of his attorneys in the merits phase. Given that, the attorneys are free to pursue the tactics they can to best achieve the goals he set out. If he didn't want them to do that, he would have waived counsel, which he almost did. Checking for competency is a separate issue to make sure he is capable of setting those goals.

But it doesn't sound like he was requesting the death penalty, he just didn't want a psychiatric defense and that's not his call to make if he wants an attorney to achieve his goals.

Posted by: Erik M | Apr 12, 2017 2:12:35 PM

Doug, I was just busting chops.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 12, 2017 2:39:49 PM

Sorry, federalist, satire does not always come through via the interwebs.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 12, 2017 5:25:31 PM

Ha ha--well, I thought the "damages" was a dead giveaway--LOL. Shows how much I know . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Apr 12, 2017 5:59:02 PM

I suppose it is a rather difficult client-relations matter to advise a client that you think they are crazy and should tell everyone this is the case.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Apr 12, 2017 7:22:04 PM

Erik: Address 3.3. These attorneys should be sanctioned, and be made to pay all costs from their personal assets.

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 12, 2017 7:33:55 PM

I guess the question is how narrowly or broadly you define goals and strategies. If a defendant has two desires -- minimizing the punishment and keeping his family from having to testify -- is the goal just minimizing the punishment or is it both. Does the defendant get to prioritize the goals or -- if he decides to go to trial -- is the decision about whether to use the family a matter of strategy? If defendant does not want to have his family testify, is it ineffective assistance to comply with that request? (On the last issue, given that the goals and strategies distinction comes from the rules of professional conduct and the Supreme Court has held that the Sixth Amendment does not mirror the ethical rules, do a defendant's wishes even matter to the competent representation analysis?)

In this case, it appears that Mr. Roof had two goals -- avoiding the death penalty and not going down in history as a crazy person. If the attorneys can treat the decision about a mental health defense as a strategy and not a goal (especially in the penalty phase), then pursuing a mental health based theory is within their discretion. And while Mr. Roof may not have been "insane," the DSM V is broad enough to find something that fits almost any criminal (and a lot of non-criminals who are generally functional and successful in life). So if a mental disease mitigation defense is just a strategy, we have almost required capital defense attorneys to at least have an evaluation done to see if a defendant fits a significant enough disorder to support an argument that the defendant should not receive a death sentence because of that disorder.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 13, 2017 11:05:34 AM

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