CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Jury selection was halted before it began Monday in the federal case of a white man accused of gunning down nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church, with the judge holding a hearing closed to everyone but the defendant and his own lawyers.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel opened the scheduled jury selection phase by saying he had received a request from the lawyers for Dylann Roof, 22, that required immediate attention. Gergel didn't say specifically what the attorneys wanted to discuss, only that the request had to do with Roof's right to a fair and impartial jury and trial.
In a memo filed late Monday, Gergel wrote that, even though he's instructed potential jurors not to read any reports about the trial, the risk of information about what was discussed in the closed hearing was too great to allow anyone but Roof and his lawyers inside.
"This is an unusually sensitive period in this proceeding where highly prejudicial pre-trial publicity could taint the jury pool and make selection of a fair and impartial jury increasingly challenging," Gergel wrote.
Part of the memo was blacked out, but it appeared to discuss some evidence, of which "the Court has not determined the admissibility." The evidence itself wasn't named, and many of the motions and orders in Roof's case already have been filed under seal, meaning that only lawyers have access to them.
In the late afternoon, the court system announced Gergel had rescheduled the jury selection process to reconvene on Wednesday. There is no court Tuesday because it is Election Day.
Monday was to be the first day in what could be a multi-week process of whittling down a jury pool for Roof's trial. He faces 33 federal charges including hate crimes and obstruction of religion for the June 2015 shooting deaths at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The courthouse was teeming with news media, members of the public, and dozens of relatives of the shooting victims.
But at 9 a.m., as the first panel of 10 juror candidates was set to be called, Gergel said he had received a last-minute request for a hearing from Roof's defense team. Saying juror selection would be called off Monday, Gergel read a statement from the bench that he'd be holding a hearing from which prosecutors, reporters and the public would be excluded.
"The closing of the hearing is necessary to protect the attorney-client privilege and the defendant's right to a fair and impartial jury," Gergel said.
Several news media organizations argued that the hearing should be open or, at the very least, a recording or transcript of portions not related to attorney-client privilege should be made available.
Authorities have said Roof wrote in an online manifesto of wanting to incite a race war with the shootings. Instead, some of the victims' relatives said at one of his first court appearances they forgave him for what he had done. Photos found online showed Roof embracing the Confederate flag and other white supremacy symbols. Ultimately, the shootings acted as a catalyst for state lawmakers to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina's Statehouse grounds, where it had flown since 1961.
Court is also canceled Friday, which is Veterans Day.
The trial itself is expected to run into the new year and will be in two phases: to decide Roof's guilt or innocence and, if he is convicted, to determine if he should be sentenced to life in prison or death. Roof faces a second death-penalty trial in state court next year.
Also Monday, local and federal authorities said they were investigating nine suspicious letters referencing racial violence in Charleston. The letters, all of which were sent last month from outside the U.S., were received by hotels, a popular park and Emanuel AME Church.
Law enforcement presence in Charleston's downtown historic district is very heavy due to the simultaneous trials of Roof and Michael Slager, the former North Charleston police officer charged with murder in the death of black motorist Walter Scott. Slager's trial continues this week in county court, across the street from Charleston's federal complex.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/