Judge unwavering in decision to close Dylann Roof competency hearing

Judge unwavering in decision to close Dylann Roof competency hearing

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Judge Gergel seemed unwavering in his decision to close a competency hearing in the Dylann Roof case.

Earlier this week he released an order saying the hearing, which was rescheduled for next Monday, Nov. 21, would be closed.

The hearing will include the evaluation of a court-appointed psychologist who evaluated Roof's competency to stand trial.

In a session on Thursday, Judge Gergel heard objections from both the public and representatives of media outlets about why they thought the hearing should be open to the public.

He discussed different points with the people who spoke up to object, and explained his decision to close the hearing.

Several family members of victims spoke to the judge in court.

Some said they felt this competency hearing was a stall tactic by the defense.

Others said they are sick of waiting for the trial to begin.

One woman said their "hearts were broken into a million pieces" after last year's shooting, and that the continued delays were not good for the victims or the community.

They believed closing the competency hearing was unfairly shutting the victims and the community out of the court proceedings.

An attorney representing WCSC-TV, USA Today and other media outlets told the judge in 39 years of practicing law, he had never heard of closing a competency hearing.

An attorney representing NPR said the openness of court enhances both the fairness of court and appearance of fairness, important to the public perception.

Judge Gergel said he truly understood all the objections.

He said he was glad the press and public objected, because closing a court proceeding should be rare and should be scrutinized.

But in the end, Gergel said he had to weigh the first amendment rights of the press and the desire for transparency for the public against the fifth and sixth amendment rights of the Defendant.

Gergel said Roof has a right to a fair trial and impartial jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

The judge said opening the competency hearing could jeopardize that right.

Gergel said the age of social media and the rapidness with which news disseminates means a potential jury could hear about parts of the competency hearing.

Being just more than a week out from jury selection, Gergel said in his order, "there is a substantial probability that the defendants right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity."

In addition, Gergel said he has read the psychologist's report extensively.

He said in his order, "I'm deeply committed to open courts but this is an unusual case."

He said defendants are not provided their Miranda rights before a competency evaluation, therefore, "the defendant may disclose matters to the examiner in the course of the evaluation that would otherwise never be disclosed in a criminal trial because of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and not be a witness against himself."

Gergel said he's not doing anyone involved in this case any favors if he's not extremely careful with his decision making, as the case could later be reversed if the competency hearing details jeopardized the trial.

Gergel said his staff would be working through the Thanksgiving holidays to make sure the "train stays on track" and the trial continues in a timely manner.

The mental competency hearing will begin at 9 a.m. Monday.

Jury selection is set to resume Monday, Nov. 28.

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