CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dylann Roof, the man charged with massacring nine black parishioners at a Charleston church, mostly avoided eye contact Monday with the potential jurors who could give him a death sentence if they convict him of federal charges.
About 320 potential jurors reported to the courthouse in the city’s historic district on the first day of jury screening for Roof’s trial on charges of hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and other offenses in the June 2015 slaying at Emanuel AME Church.
He faces 33 federal counts altogether. Prosecutors allege he had talked of starting a race war before the killings and posed for online photos with the Confederate battle flag.
About 3,000 potential jurors were summoned – a pool that’s about 73 percent white and 23 percent black. The South Carolina population as a whole is 69 percent white and 28 percent black. The jurors are being brought into court during the coming days in groups of 80 for initial screening.
When the first group arrived, Roof, 22, was wearing a striped prison jumpsuit. Later he appeared in a blue cable-knit sweater and gray slacks, sitting between his attorneys at a table facing the jury pool.
Courthouse security was tight. About a dozen Department of Homeland Security personnel were at the entrances, while two of the agency’s vans were parked on the street. A court spokesman said some of the potential jurors were brought to the courthouse by bus after meeting at another location.
But the high-profile case began quietly, and a courtroom set aside for the public had only about two dozen people, most of them reporters.
Several potential jurors from the first panel were excused from serving or had their jury service deferred. The remaining jurors were then escorted to another room where they were asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire about what they know about the Roof case.
Individual questioning of jurors begins in early November.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said testimony probably would not start until late November or early December. He told the jurors they will not be sequestered and there will be no court sessions over Thanksgiving or Christmas.
He said that while some people think jury service is a burden, he said “it’s an honor to be an American citizen and it’s an honor to be a juror.”
He added that while the potential jurors have not heard any testimony, they should avoid any news coverage of the case and not discuss it with anyone or try to do their own research.
Roof’s attorneys say he’s willing to plead guilty and serve life if the death penalty is taken off the table.
Roof also faces nine murder charges in state court in a trial that is set to begin next year. The state is also seeking the death penalty.