Dylann Roof told judge he would rather die than be labeled autistic or mentally ill

It is the first time in U.S. history that a state government and the federal government have pursued the death penalty for the same defendant. (Sign up for our free video newsletter here)


Dylann Roof, the 23-year-old white supremacist who fatally shot nine members of a Charleston, S.C., Bible study class in 2015, told the judge presiding over his death penalty trial last year that he would rather die than be labeled autistic.

Hundreds of pages of psychiatric evaluations and court transcripts unsealed Wednesday show Roof’s intense anxiety that his court-appointed defense attorneys would present evidence of the developmental disability or a mental illness in a bid to spare his life.

“If they say I have autism, it’s like they are trying to discredit me,” Roof told U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in a November pretrial hearing that was closed to the public. “It discredits the reason why I did the crime.”


“Your lawyers are trying to help you, Mr. Roof,” Gergel told him. “They are trying to marshal a defense for you.”

“I get that,” Roof replied. “But the problem is … if the price is that people think I’m autistic, then it’s not worth it.… It discredits the reason why I did the crime.”

In December, Roof was found guilty of all 33 counts in the June 17, 2015, massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including committing a hate crime against black victims, obstructing the exercise of religion and using a firearm to commit murder. He was sentenced to death in January.

On Wednesday, Gergel, who presided over the trial, rejected Roof’s first appeal. The defense had argued that his case should not have been tried in federal court because the massacre took place within South Carolina and Roof did not travel out of state.

In a 31-page ruling, Gergel rejected that argument, pointing out that Roof had used the Internet to research the church and a GPS device to find it, and that his bullets, magazines and a firearm were made outside the state.

Gergel also unsealed documents that illustrate Roof’s mind-set and the extent of the rift that opened up between Roof and his attorneys as they worked to develop a defense.


In a November hearing, an attorney for Roof requested an evaluation of his competency to stand trial, arguing that his client suffered from crippling anxiety or a somatic delusion.

Roof had a bowl haircut because he believed his forehead was too large. He feared he would have “blushing attacks” in the courtroom. He wanted to be tried in federal court because there were no TV cameras.

He is a geyser of autistic symptoms. It was masked for us by the fact that he is verbally adept.

— David Bruck, attorney

“He just told us his entire life is one timeline of embarrassment,” said the attorney, David Bruck. “He did not want the television camera trained on his face and his forehead for the public and the world to see. He could not tolerate the anxiety and distress that that causes. He is on a different planet from the rest of us.”

At another November hearing, Bruck likened his client to a “precocious” 10-year-old child.

“He is a geyser of autistic symptoms,” he said. “It was masked for us by the fact that he is verbally adept.”

Roof’s sense of reality was so distorted, Bruck told the judge, that he did not believe he would be executed even if a jury imposed the death penalty.

“He firmly believes that there will be a white nationalist takeover of the United States within roughly six, seven, eight years, and when that happens, he will be pardoned,” Bruck told the judge. “He also believes it probable, although not certain, that he will be given a high position, such as the governorship of South Carolina.”

Bruck argued that Roof had a paranoid belief system that was hindering his defense. In a letter to prosecutors, Roof had complained that his defense attorneys had used “scare tactics, manipulation and outright lies” to further their agenda of using a mental health defense.

The letter, Bruck told Gergel, led him to believe his client was “forming an alliance in his own mind” with the prosecution.

“If he is incapable of cooperating with counsel, if the decisions that he is making are affected by delusions, by fixed false beliefs, if they are the product of mental illness … the mere fact that he has figured out how to sabotage his defense doesn’t mean that he’s competent,” Bruck argued. “It is an illustration of why it is so terrible to try an incompetent defendant.”

Roof, however, told Gergel he believed his attorneys were mistaking his personality traits for autism — which is marked by social inability, communication problems and repetitive behaviors or obsessive interests — and acting disingenuously in trying to present him as autistic. ”I don’t want them to say that because it’s not true.”

“Could you explain that to me, being labeled autistic is worse than death?” Gergel asked Roof.

“Because once you’ve got that label, there is no point in living anyway,” Roof replied.

“I don’t really think they believe I have autism,” Roof said. “I think they are just taking whatever they can and using whatever they can, you see what I’m saying? Because they don’t have anything else to use.”

The evidence prosecutors presented against Roof was overwhelming. Roof confessed in a taped FBI interview. Two survivors identified him as the shooter. Closed-circuit television video showed him exiting the church basement with the murder weapon in his hand.

You don’t feel sorry for people that you don’t identify with.

— Dylann Roof

Dr. James Ballenger, a clinical psychiatrist, wrote in a January competency evaluation report that Roof felt he only had two options — death and life in prison — and that both were “equally bad”.

“The only thing that is important to him is to protect his reputation,” he wrote.

According to Ballenger, Roof said his attorneys were “ideologues about the death penalty” whose most important priority deviated from his interests.

“While they accuse him of being self-destructive by not devoting all his efforts to opposing the death penalty, he feels they are self-destructive,” the psychiatrist wrote. “What they want to do would destroy the only thing that matters to him at this point, i.e. his reputation.”

If he were ever out of prison, Roof told Ballenger, he would try to kill Bruck, his lead attorney.

Ballenger, who met with Roof at a detention center twice to perform court-ordered evaluations, said Roof rejected his attorneys’ ideas that he is autistic and does not understand social cues as “ludicrous.”

Roof likened his situation to being “like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people,” Ballenger wrote. “He said the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret, because he would have successfully done what he tried to do.”

Roof also pushed back against the idea that his racist beliefs were paranoid, arguing that it is undeniable that the white race would become extinct. “He stated that we are in fact already or soon will be the minority,” Ballenger wrote.

When asked whether he felt anxious about facing the loved ones of the people he killed, Roof said he could “appreciate and understand” what they felt, but “he didn’t care,” Ballenger wrote.

“You don’t feel sorry for people that you don’t identify with,” Roof told the psychiatrist.

Yet, Ballenger ultimately found Roof competent to stand trial.

“Defendant is fully capable of cooperating and assisting his attorneys but is choosing not to for rational and intelligent reasons where he disagrees with his attorneys,” the psychiatrist wrote.

Jarvie is a special correspondent.


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10:15 a.m.: This article was updated with additional statements from Dylann Roof.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.