A federal judge canceled jury selection on Monday to hold a closed hearing in the U.S. death penalty trial for a white man charged with hate crimes after the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at a historic South Carolina church last year.
Dylann Roof, who is accused of holding white supremacist views, was indicted on 33 federal counts of hate crimes, obstruction of religion and using a firearm in a violent crime after he opened fire during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June 2015.
The final phase of jury selection in the case was to begin on Monday. But U.S. Judge Richard Gergel instead scheduled a hearing with Roof and his attorneys to discuss issues involving attorney-client privilege and the defendant’s right to a fair trial, a court statement said. Prosecutors were not going to be in attendance.
“I have received a motion in this case this morning requiring my immediate attention and the conducting of a hearing involving only the defendant and defense counsel,” Gergel said from the bench, reading from a statement.
The surprise announcement came after about 30 family members of the victims had been seated in the courtroom. Roof sat at the defense table, wearing a gray and white striped prison jumpsuit.
The proceedings at the U.S. courthouse in Charleston are unfolding as another racially-charged trial progresses across the street. Michael Slager, a white former police officer in North Charleston, is being tried for murder in state court in the shooting of black motorist Walter Scott in April 2015.
The two incidents, which occurred just two months apart, shook the country and further intensified the debate over U.S. race relations.
In Roof’s case, lawyers will pick 12 jurors and six alternates to hear testimony from about 500 potential jurors summoned for the trial.
If Roof is convicted, the penalty phase of the trial could extend into January. Roof, 22, has offered to plead guilty if the death penalty was dropped, court filings show.
He also faces a death sentence if found guilty of murder in state court in a trial scheduled for next year.
Prosecutors say Roof planned the church attack for months, singling out victims who were black and elderly, and showing no remorse. At the federal trial, they plan to present racist manifestos that he purportedly wrote in an effort to incite a race war.
(Additional reporting and writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Bernard Orr and Frances Kerry)