A jury is expected to be seated on Wednesday in the federal death penalty case against avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, who is accused of gunning down nine black parishioners at a historic South Carolina church last year.
Lawyers are scheduled to select 12 jurors and six alternates from the 67 people remaining in the jury pool. Both sides may then present opening statements in the trial at a U.S. courthouse in Charleston.
Roof, who also is scheduled to be tried for murder by state prosecutors, faces 33 federal counts of hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms violations stemming from the June 2015 church massacre, which horrified Americans of all races and intensified the debate about race relations in the country.
Roof, 22, is accused of planning the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for months, and prosecutors said he targeted his victims because they were black.
His federal trial is set to open two days after a jury at the state courthouse across the street failed to reach a verdict in another racially charged case. The hung jury resulted in a mistrial being declared for Michael Slager, a white former North Charleston police officer accused of fatally shooting fleeing black motorist Walter Scott in April 2015.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel denied a request by Roof’s attorneys to delay his trial because of their concerns that jurors might respond to the Slager mistrial by imposing a harsher punishment on Roof.
Gergel called that scenario “utterly far-fetched and illogical” in his ruling.
Roof represented himself in court for about a week during jury selection. His team of lawyers was put back in charge on Monday at his request but Roof told Gergel that he wanted to act as his own counsel again during the sentencing phase of the trial.
Attorneys expect the first phase of the trial, in which the jury weighs guilt, to last about a week. The subsequent sentencing phase may occur early next year, the judge has indicated.
Roof would plead guilty if federal prosecutors agreed to a sentence of life in prison without parole rather than death, his lawyers have said. Government lawyers have not acquiesced to any such deal.
Roof will face the death penalty in his state murder trial, which is scheduled to begin early next year.
(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)