Charleston church killer Dylann Roof stages hunger strike as lawyers appeal death sentence

Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who gunned down nine South Carolina churchgoers during a Bible study session in 2015, allegedly staged a hunger strike earlier this month to protest his treatment on death row.

Roof, 25, told The Associated Press in a Feb. 13 letter that he has been "targeted by staff," "verbally harassed and abused without cause" and "treated disproportionately harsh" at the Federal Correctional Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana. He claimed in the letter that the prison staff believe they are justified in their actions "since (he) is hated by the general public," the AP reported.

Roof, who wrote he was several days into his strike, also claimed that a Bureau of Prisons disciplinary hearing officer treated him badly regarding complaints Roof made stating he had been denied access to the prison’s law library and a copy machine that would allow him to file legal paperwork.

The mass killer’s attorneys filed an appeal Jan. 28 that argues he was mentally ill when he represented himself at his December 2016 capital murder trial. Roof was convicted of 33 separate federal charges, including hate crimes, for going to Emanuel AME Church the night of June 17, 2015, where the pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and his congregants welcomed him into their Bible study.

About 45 minutes later, as those around him closed their eyes for a final prayer, Roof, then 21, stood up, pulled a pistol from his bag and began shooting.

"(The victims) learned with the sounds of gunfire that the defendant had not come to learn or receive the Word," Richardson told jurors, according to the Post and Courier in Charleston. "He came with a hate-filled heart and a Glock .45."

Credit: AP Photo/Glynn A. Hill

Credit: AP Photo/Glynn A. Hill

Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator, and eight of the 11 church members in attendance were killed. Besides Pinckney, the victims included Cynthia Hurd, a library manager; Susie Jackson, an 87-year-old church choir member; Ethel Lee Lance, the church's sexton; Depayne Middleton-Doctor, admissions coordinator at Southern Westleyan University; Tywanza Sanders, Jackson's 26-year-old grandnephew; the Rev. Daniel Simmons; the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a speech therapist and high school track coach; and Bible study teacher Myra Thompson.

Prosecutors argued at trial that Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist, targeted Emanuel AME, the South’s oldest black church, because of his hatred of minorities. Following his arrest, Roof told federal agents he hoped the shooting would launch a race war or bring back racial segregation.

Roof was sentenced to death in January 2017, becoming the first person in the U.S. to be sentenced to death in connection with a federal hate crime.

Roof wrote again to the AP on Feb. 16, indicating that his protest was ended two days earlier by prison guards who forcibly tried to take his blood and insert an IV into his vein. He said he passed out briefly.

"I feel confident I could have gone much, much longer without food," Roof wrote in the follow-up letter, according to the AP. "It's just not worth being murdered over."

AP reporters were unable to officially verify Roof’s claims, as prison officials cited privacy laws, but a person familiar with the situation anonymously confirmed the hunger strike. Roof’s lawyers also told the news agency in a statement that they were “working with Bureau of Prison (officials) to resolve the issues addressed in the letters.”

Credit: U.S. Bureau of Prisons

Credit: U.S. Bureau of Prisons

Roof’s appeal of his death sentence, detailed in a 321-page legal brief, asks the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to take up a total of 20 issues, including mistakes it alleges the judge and prosecutors made that tainted his sentencing.

His attorneys argue that U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel erred in allowing Roof to represent himself during the penalty phase of the trial.

“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,” the appeal begins. “His experienced counsel, whom Roof jettisoned to prevent evidence of his mental illness from coming to light, told the court that in their decades of experience, none had represented a defendant so disconnected from reality.”

Roof’s mental competency was in question on the eve of his trial, when his trial lawyers told the court that Roof, who had cooperated with them for over a year, had suddenly become oppositional out of fear that his mental state would become fodder in the courtroom, the appeal states.

The judge halted jury selection to hold two days of emergency hearings on the subject.

“At an ex parte hearing, Roof told the court he wrote prosecutors because he opposed counsel’s plan to present ‘mental health stuff,’ particularly evidence he was autistic, which he considered a fate worse than death,” the appeal states.

“Once you’ve got that label, there is no point in living anyway,” the appeal quotes Roof saying.

Credit: AP Photo/Chuck Burton, Centralized Bond Hearing Court via AP

Credit: AP Photo/Chuck Burton, Centralized Bond Hearing Court via AP

At the end of the hearings, the court found Roof competent to stand trial.

Roof’s appellate attorneys argue that the court “clearly erred” in finding Roof competent and violated his due process by holding inadequate competency hearings.

“The court allowed Roof not only to stand trial, but to represent himself and present no mitigating evidence or argument to the jury,” the appeal states.

Roof offered few words to persuade jurors to spare his life for the murders he committed inside Emanuel AME. He gave a disjointed closing statement in which he tried to downplay the hatred that Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson accused him of harboring.

“I think that it’s, um, safe to say that no one in their right mind would want to go into a church and kill people,” Roof said.

Roof denied that he hated black people but told jurors he still felt like he did what he needed to do when he opened fire in the church. He also told jurors he had been informed he could ask for a life sentence instead of death but said he was “not sure what good that would do anyway.”

Credit: AP Photo/David Goldman

Credit: AP Photo/David Goldman

His appellate attorneys argue that, despite Roof going through two competency hearings and being found delusional by five experts, whose “findings (were) swiftly dismissed by the court, in its rush to move the case along,” jurors never heard any of that evidence.

“Instead, prosecutors told them Roof was a calculated killer with no signs of mental illness,” the filing states. “Given no reason to do otherwise, jurors sentenced Roof to death.

“Roof’s crime was tragic, but this court can have no confidence in the jury’s verdict.”

The attorneys argue that other errors tainting their client’s case include misconduct that prevented jurors from considering mitigating evidence indicating Roof “posed no future danger, while allowing jurors to weigh the victims’ virtuousness and a survivor’s call to send Roof to ‘the pit of hell’ in favor of death.”

Roof’s lawyers also argue that the federal trial was unnecessary and “shouldn’t have happened at all” because the state of South Carolina had also brought capital charges against him. The crime was a “wholly-intrastate” one and state officials “viewed the federal prosecution as unnecessary and disruptive.”

“This Court should vacate Roof’s convictions and death sentence,” the appeal states.

Read Roof’s entire 321-page appeal brief below. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr last July directed federal prisons to resume capital punishment after a moratorium of nearly 20 years. He did so by requiring prison officials to adopt a new federal execution protocol that changed how lethal injections will be conducted.

"The Federal Execution Protocol Addendum, which closely mirrors protocols utilized by several states, including currently Georgia, Missouri, and Texas, replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug -- pentobarbital," a Department of Justice news release said. "Since 2010, 14 states have used pentobarbital in over 200 executions and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly upheld the use of pentobarbital in executions as consistent with the Eighth Amendment."

Bureau of Prisons officials picked five inmates for which executions would be scheduled. The AP reported, however, that some of the executions have been halted by the Supreme Court after the inmates challenged the new execution protocol in court.

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