By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Accused white supremacist Dylann Roof is mentally competent to stand trial for the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church last year, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
The decision ends a temporary halt to federal efforts to seek justice in the June 2015 attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that shook the country and intensified the debate over U.S. race relations.
Roof faces 33 counts of hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms charges stemming from the massacre carried out during a church Bible study. Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
The 22-year-old suspect’s competency was the subject of a 16-hour hearing held behind closed doors on Monday and Tuesday.
Earlier this month, as final jury selection was getting under way, defense attorneys raised concerns for the first time about whether Roof was able to understand the nature of the proceedings against him and to assist in his defense.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said in an order on Friday that he believed Roof had the mental capacity to do so.
The judge said he made his ruling after considering a large record of evidence, including arguments from lawyers in the case and the testimony of a renowned psychiatrist who evaluated Roof at the court’s request.
Gergel kept under seal his detailed findings about Roof’s competency, however, saying that making them public would jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Jury selection now will resume on Monday. Lawyers have said it could take about two weeks to pick 12 jurors and six alternates to hear testimony.
Arthur “Steve” Hurd, whose wife Cynthia Hurd was among those killed in the shooting, said he planned to be in court next week.
“Justice has prevailed,” he said when reached by phone. “I had confidence in the judge that he would make a fair and impartial decision.”
A lawyer for Roof did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gergel closed the competency hearing to the public over the objections of media outlets and victims’ family members.
Roof also faces the death sentence in a state murder trial scheduled for next year.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Phil Berlowitz)