Crime & Courts

Accused church gunman Roof to be in court Thursday

Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge for his June 19 arraignment.
Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge for his June 19 arraignment. Associated Press

Dylann Roof, who allegedly shot and killed nine African-Americans in a racially driven attack in a Charleston church last month, is expected to be in court Thursday.

Among the matters to be addressed are the “service of indictments,” 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Roof, of the Columbia area, was indicted last week by a Charleston County jury on murder charges in connection with the nine people he is alleged to have shot and killed during a June 17 prayer meeting.

The hearing will take place at 10 a.m. at the Charleston County courthouse before Judge J.C Nicholson. At that hearing, lawyers for several news organizations are expected to argue that the judge should make public the criminal records in Roof’s case that are routinely released by law agencies in criminal cases.

Late last week, Nicholson issued a sweeping gag order in which he told “all potential trial participants” in the Roof criminal proceedings they could not divulge “any prejudicial matter” or make “any extrajudicial statement that has a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing” any court proceeding.

Such sweeping gag orders in criminal cases are rare in South Carolina.

In his order, Nicholson said he took the action on his own initiative after making a finding that “due to substantial pretrial publicity, the defendant’s (Roof’s) right to a fair and impartial trial could be in jeopardy.”

On Tuesday, several news media organizations filed a motion challenging the gag order, calling the case “of great public interest” and asking for a hearing to argue to the judge that they should be able to have access to certain materials. The motion did not specify the documents sought, but in newsworthy criminal cases, journalists usually ask for and get documents such as incident reports, 911 audio, uncensored arrest warrants, search warrants and documents showing what was seized during searches.

The news organizations cited U.S. Supreme Court and other court rulings that have held that the best way to ensure a fair trial is not by censorship and gag orders, but by thorough questioning of prospective jurors before trial to ensure an impartial jury panel.

On Tuesday, state Judge Robert Hood notified The State newspaper he will not turn over search warrant returns from searches law enforcement made at places in the Columbia area where Roof had been staying before June 17.

The State newspaper had filed a Freedom of Information request with Hood to see those documents, which apparently contain descriptions of computer records and other material seized by law enforcement in the days following Roof’s arrest in North Carolina on June 18.

In denying The State’s request, Hood cited Nicholson’s July 10 gag order. “Based upon this order, I am unable to provide you with the search warrants and returns you have requested,” Hood said in an email to The State.

By traveling to Charleston and killing African-Americans at the historic Mother Emanuel Church, Roof, 21, had wanted to start a race war, according to postings on his alleged Internet site and subsequent interviews with several of his friends.