CHARLESTON – Dylann Roof, the man accused in the mass shootings last month at a historically black church here, appeared in person in state court Thursday morning for a brief hearing, where a judge set a trial date in the case.
Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson said Roof's trial in the shooting deaths of nine people at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church would start July 11 next year. He pressed the chief prosecutor in the case and Roof's defense attorneys to agree they would be ready in time.
Roof's attorney Ashley Pennington told the court that Roof would not seek bond -- though Judge Nicholson, in one of several sharp exchanges with Roof's lawyers, said he would not have granted one anyway. "I don't want to go into whether it's voluntary or not," Judge Nicholson said. "I deny the bond."
Pennington, a public defender, said the decision not to seek bond was due to the "totality of the circumstances."
Roof, 21, is accused of walking into a weekly Bible study session at Emanuel AME Church on June 17 and opening fire with a handgun, killing nine people. The victims included the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41, who was also a longtime Democratic member of the state Senate.
The tragedy renewed an often fraught conversation about race in the United States — and spurred legislation that brought the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina Statehouse.
Wearing shackles and a grey prisoner’s jumpsuit with broad blue stripes, Roof shuffled into court at 10:01 a.m., moments after a bailiff called the court into order.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, the chief prosecutor, listed the indictments -- 13 in all -- though she did not read each individually. Roof did not enter a plea in court, though Pennington acknowledged Roof had received the indictments.
Asked if the state would be ready for trial by next summer, Wilson said yes, before adding that she hoped the court would not view a request for the death penalty as an unforeseen circumstance that would result in a delay. Judge Nicholson said no.
Pennington also indicated that Roof is fit to stand trial, saying his client had been cooperative during meetings. Pennington noted that Roof had at some time achieved a GED degree.
Also at issue Thursday was a gag order on key documents in the case, including 911 calls and police investigative reports. The order, filed last week by Nicholson, puts the materials out of reach of the news media.
Lawyers for a number of local and national news organizations, including the Associated Press, have asked for the gag order to be lifted, filing a motion earlier this week that was due to be heard Thursday in court. But Nicholson deferred a hearing on the matter, extending his gag order until next Wednesday. He said other parties to the case, including law enforcement and the victims' families, had until then to indicate whether they would prefer the documents remain under seal until trial.
Nicholson said he was concerned about protecting the dignity of victims, which he said is protected under a victim's bill of rights in South Carolina law.
The judge said he would consider the issue again after the deadline next week, though he said if no further motions are filed by Wednesday, he'd end the gag order.
Lawyers for the news outlets said after the hearing they would continue to press their case.
"I wouldn't say the press lost this one," Taylor Smith, one attorney told reporters.
Smith said he thinks that state law in South Carolina protects the right of news organizations to information. "However," he added, "to the extent a judge is going to construe this order in this case to say it does not apply, that would be a loss."