Just as the death penalty trial against Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof entered its final phase Monday morning, a federal judge decided to postpone jury selection for the case.
Per Reuters, U.S. Judge Richard Gergel instead scheduled a private hearing with Roof and his lawyers to discuss issues surrounding attorney-client privilege and the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Roof was charged with 33 federal counts of hate crimes, obstruction of religion and use of a firearm in a violent crime for his attack that left nine Black parishioners dead at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina last June.
The 22-year-old self-professed white supremacist opened fire on the unsuspecting group of churchgoers during Bible study on June 17 with hopes of starting a race war. Prosecutors said Roof had been planning the heinous attack for months.
Judge Gergel’s surprising decision came after 30 members of the victims’ families had been seated in the courtroom as Roof sat at the defense table donning a gray and white striped prison jumpsuit, Reuters reports.
“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,” the judge said from the bench, reading from a statement.
Prosecutors were not present for the private hearing with Roof’s lawyers.
The proceedings at the Charleston courthouse happened just as the racially charged trial of of Michael Slager — the police officer who shot and killed unarmed Black motorist Walter Scott — unfolded across the street, according to the news site. The deadly shooting occurred just two months before Roof’s attack at the historically Black church in Charleston.
In Roof’s case, lawyers were set to begin reviewing over 500 potential jurors and narrowing them down to just 12, plus six alternates, to hear testimony in the case. Prosecutors at both the state and federal levels are seeking the death penalty against Roof. The state trial, where Roof also faces murder charges, will begin next year.
If convicted, the penalty phase of the federal trial could last until January, Reuters reports. But Roof’s lawyers offered a guilty plea back in August if the proposed death penalty was taken off the table. Prosecutors ultimately declined to take the deal, arguing that Roof’s heinous actions warranted the use of capital punishment, Atlanta Black Star reports.
“We are still struggling to understand why Dylann caused so much grief and pain to so many good people,” Roof’s relatives said in a statement last week.
There’s no word on when jury selection for the trial will resume.