Getting an initial pool of 700 qualified potential jurors to sit on the Dylann Roof death penalty trial is going faster than expected and likely will be finished Wednesday.
“Hopefully, we will wrap up this phase tomorrow,” U.S. Judge Richard Gergel said just before court let out Tuesday afternoon.
Of the 700 potential jurors who pass initial screening in this, the first in-court phase of jury selection, 12 will eventually be selected as jurors, along with six alternates.
A second, far more intensive phase of jury selection will begin Nov. 7. At that time, Gergel will question prospective jurors using material from both prosecution and defense lawyers.
Between now and Nov. 7, the 700 potential jurors will fill out detailed questionnaires seeking their opinions on various matters, including whether they are open to imposing the death penalty. Any juror who is opposed to the death penalty in all cases will automatically be disqualified.
Jurors excluded at this phase of jury screening are those who cannot serve for reasons such as health, child care duties or essential work duties. The trial, including the death penalty phase if needed, might last three or four weeks or more. It likely will not begin until late November or December.
Roof, 22, a self-proclaimed white supremacist from Columbia, is charged with federal hate crimes in connection with the June 2015 killings of nine African-Americans at the “Mother” Emanuel AME church in downtown Charleston. Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Evidence in the case indicates that Roof, who was arrested the day after the Emanuel shootings, was hoping to ignite a race war.
The courtroom has only 80 seats, and Judge Richard Gergel has allowed a sketch artist and one pool reporter, from The Post and Courier of Charleston, in the courtroom to provide in-court coverage.
The pool reporter wrote Tuesday that Roof was dressed in striped jail garb, and at times poured water into cups for himself and his attorneys. On occasion, the defendant appeared to analyze a list of prospective jurors.
One of the pool members, a middle-age black man, clutched a leather-bound Bible as he listened to Gergel warn the group not to do independent research on the case and not to tell their spouses about the experience.
Only one person, a white woman from Johns Island, told the judge she could not participate because she runs a business and cares for her wheelchair-bound husband.
The phase of juror selection that begins Nov. 7 will be much different. Each individual potential juror will be questioned at length to weed out those with biases toward Roof’s guilt or innocence, and to keep only those who are open to imposing the death penalty. It can easily take more more than an hour to examine each potential juror.
In the 2015 death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the intensive juror questioning phase to produce a death-qualified jury took about eight weeks.