Representing Criminal Defendants with Mental Health Issues – What We Can Learn from Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof, who infamously shot and killed nine African-Americans engaged in bible study at a Charleston, South Carolina church, chose to represent himself during the sentencing phase of his federal capital trial.  During his “presentation”, he informed the jury that there was nothing wrong with him psychologically and also stated, in essence, that he would do it again.  Any statements Roof made concerning his psychological status were, however, totally false.  At some point during the two months preceding his sentencing hearing, a Court-appointed psychiatrist examined Roof and discovered evidence of numerous mental health disorders.  Additionally, Roof had described himself as severely depressed in the months preceding the shooting.

Significantly, Roof chose to represent himself at sentencing rather than allow his defense team to do so.  His decision on this issue appears to have been calculated and deliberate.  Roof’s defense team wanted to argue to the jury that he should not be sentenced to death for his actions because of his mental health issues.  Roof, however, specifically and unequivocally did not want the jury that was going to determine whether he should die for his crimes to hear of his psychological conditions.  As a result, his jury did not learn about any of the psychiatric evaluations prepared in connection with his case prior to deciding on his sentence.   And the jury is not alone on this issue – the record of Court-ordered evaluations was sealed by the trial judge.  Sealed documents from Roof’s trial are now being slowly released; however, documents pertaining to psychiatric evaluations prepared at the request of the Court or Roof’s defense team are not included.  The transcripts of two competency hearings also remain under wraps.  Thus, the documents that could provide the best indication of Roof’s motivations for his crimes are unavailable.

In fact, the relatively small amount of available information suggests strongly that Roof is something of a psychological basket case.  Motion papers filed by Roof’s defense team prior to trial noted that he suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder, a Mixed Substance Abuse Disorder, a Schizoid Personality Disorder, Depression and, possibly, an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.  The papers also noted that Roof had a relatively high IQ, but that it was compromised by his inability to process information and poor memory.  Further, defense attorneys get to learn a lot about their clients as they work through their cases with them.  Counsel’s papers also included personal observations and assessments concerning Roof’s abilities and actions.  They informed the Court that Roof tended to focus on unimportant details, could not process information from multiple sources, displayed a heightened need for predictability, and was easily overwhelmed.  Had the jury known of these issues, the sentencing result may have been different.

Roof’s case provides attorneys and clients with some guidance concerning the representation of defendants with mental health issues.  First, Roof’s trial judge had him evaluated for competency, and ultimately determined that he was competent to stand trial.  The judge’s findings and conclusions were not surprising since the threshold for competency is relatively low.  The defendant has to understand the functions of the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney.  They have to be able to relate the facts of their case as they know them to defense counsel, and they have to be able to make decisions concerning such issues as whether to plead out or proceed to trial.

Additionally, not all mental health issues raise competency questions (or support defenses to the underlying charges).  As noted above, Roof had myriad psychological issues and the trial judge was aware of all of them, but still determined that he was competent to stand trial.  It is a mistake to automatically assume that every psychological condition translates into a competency concern.  People with mental health issues are regularly deemed competent to proceed with a criminal case.  However, this does not mean that a particular condition has no bearing on the case.  For example, a diagnosis that does not render a defendant incompetent may still support the finding of mitigating factors at sentencing, and must therefore be brought to the attention of the court and the prosecutor.

Finally, the presence of psychological issues does not necessary translate into lack of intellectual ability.  Roof, even with all of his problems, had a high IQ.  He did not want the jury to learn of his psychological issues, notwithstanding the wishes and advice of his defense team to use that material to avoid a death sentence.  He was apparently able to determine that he could keep his jury in the dark by seeking permission to represent himself at sentencing.  To drive home his points during his sentencing hearing, he specifically told his jury that there was nothing wrong with him psychologically, that he “felt like [he] had to do it”, and he “still [felt] like [he] had to do it.”  Thus, Roof demonstrated that it is a huge mistake to assume that defendants with mental health issues cannot also be intelligent and capable of making decisions concerning their cases that achieve their own personal goals.

Middlesex County, New Jersey criminal defense attorney James S. Friedman represents criminal defendants with mental health issues in the Superior Court of New Jersey in all counties, the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the New York City Criminal Court, and the United States District Courts located in New Jersey and New York City.  If you or someone you know has psychological issues and criminal charges, contact us immediately to discuss representation.






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