Accused church gunman Dylann Roof to represent himself at death penalty trial
Dylann Storm Roof (Facebook)

Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist accused of killing nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, South Carolina church last year, will be allowed to represent himself at his federal death penalty trial, a judge ruled on Monday.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said in court he believed Roof's decision to serve as his own lawyer was unwise but granted his request after finding the defendant had the right and capacity to do so.

Roof faces 33 counts of hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms charges stemming from the shooting, which occurred during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.

Prosecutors say Roof had planned the attack for months and are seeking the death penalty.

Gergel ruled on Friday that Roof, 22, was mentally competent to stand trial, following concerns raised by defense attorneys about their client's ability to understand the nature of the proceedings against him and to assist in his defense.

That decision paved the way for jury selection to resume on Monday. But, in another twist, Gergel said he had received a motion from Roof seeking to represent himself.

The judge called Roof to the podium in a Charleston courtroom and asked him a series of questions to determine whether he understood the charges, the punishment he faced, and the trial duties he was undertaking.

Roof, shackled and dressed in a striped gray and white prison jumpsuit, answered "Yes" or "Yes, sir."

With Roof unmoved by the judge's advice to keep his lawyers on the case, Gergel told the defendant he could serve as lead counsel and appointed his current lawyers to remain on standby.

"I find that his decision is knowing, intelligent and voluntary," the judge said.

Jury questioning then got underway, with much of the judge's focus on how potential jurors viewed capital punishment.

Gergel dismissed several people who expressed conflicted feelings about a death sentence or said it should always be the punishment for murder.

One woman said she could be fair and impartial but admitted being sickened by the crime, which shook the country and stoked a debate over U.S. race relations. Gergel struck the woman from serving as a juror.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bernadette Baum)