How is it possible that someone who functioned normally in society and had the presence of mind to ambush nine innocent parishioners could somehow be found incompetent to stand trial? Some in the Charleston community are asking that question after federal trial proceedings for Dylann Roof were put on hold for the purposes of determining whether or not he was competent to stand trial. In the backdrop of the ongoing Michael Slager trial, which is being held right across the street from the federal courthouse in which Roof is scheduled to be tried, the question arose: Is it possible that two of the most high profile, racially-polarizing shootings in the Lowcountry may result with both shooters somehow getting off the hook? While the inclination to be prematurely worried has been tempting, it’s very important to recognize the meaning and posture of the Roof competency hearings before jumping to any conclusions about his chances for exoneration.
First, it is important to note that the ongoing Dylann Roof proceedings are in federal court, not state court. These competency hearings relate only to his ability to stand trial for the federal charges being brought against him by the United States Attorney General. While a guilty verdict in federal court could certainly lead to Roof’s incarceration for the rest of his life, or even execution at the hands of the federal government, the current proceedings are wholly separate from those which will be brought in state court, and which have yet to begin.
Roof’s case is unique in that both federal and state authorities have chosen to bring capital murder charges against him. While the federal proceedings have priority, and in this instance are being conducted before the state proceedings, it is entirely possible that Roof could be found incompetent to stand trial in a federal court and the state court may allow murder charges against him to proceed. Along those lines, concerned observers should realize that there are two parallel tracks of criminal proceedings which will proceed against Dylann Roof which are entirely separate and distinct. The uncertainty regarding competency at the federal level in no way presages a similar outcome or finding at the state court level.
Secondly, a finding that someone may be incompetent to stand trial is an entirely different concept than the finding that someone may not be guilty by reason of insanity. While both concepts refer to the mental state of a criminal defendant, they are applied at different stages of criminal proceedings and therefore lead to entirely different outcomes. Incompetency to stand trial has been defined as a test of whether or not a defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. In that regard, competency to stand trial is an assessment made at the time legal proceedings are set to begin, and do not refer to the defendant’s state of mind at the time the offense was allegedly committed. Additionally, the finding that someone is incompetent to stand trial has no bearing on whether or not a defendant is actually guilty of committing the crime for which he has been charged. If someone is adjudged incompetent to stand trial, it then simply means that the defendant will not be proceeding to trial and may well end up in a psychiatric hospital or mental health facility. In that instance, the defendant would not have been found innocent, but would not be set free to run the streets.
It is completely possible that Roof may be found incompetent to stand trial in federal court, and yet still face trial for murder charges in state court. And a determination of incompetency does not mean that he will be set free despite the heinous crimes he has confessed to committing. It is understandable to be on edge as two emotionally intense murder proceedings intersect in our community. As we all wait with baited breath to see how the trials play out, we would be best served to let the legal process take its course, and to not jump to any conclusions before the final verdicts are announced.