Calling his attorneys "the sneakiest group of people I have ever met," Dylann Roof reached out to federal prosecutors on the eve of his hate crimes trial in an effort to scuttle a planned mental health defense aimed at sparing him the death penalty.
Roof blistered his legal team in a three-page jailhouse letter, accusing them of tricking him into undergoing tests to challenge his competency to stand trial for killing nine black worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. Roof told prosecutors he wanted no part of this strategy, which he labeled "a lie."
"Because I have no real defense, my lawyers have been forced to grasp at straws and present a pathetic, fraudulent excuse for a defense in my name," he wrote in early November. "They have regularly told me in an aggressive manner that I have no say in my own defense, that my input doesn't matter, and that there is nothing I can do about it."
I am well aware that counsel must put forth a full, unstinting effort to represent the client. But in what sense can it be called "representation" for the lawyers to attempt to paint the client as crazy -- when in fact he isn't, doesn't want to be humiliated by being portrayed in that way, and instead wants to present himself to the world (and to the court) as what he actually is: Not defective but merely hateful -- and as, shall we say, a man of action.
I have my doubts that his lawyers told Roof he "had no say" in his defense, but no doubt at all that they wanted to put him on display as a mental cripple even though, so far as any known evidence shows or even suggests, such a display would have been, as Roof says, fraudulent.
What we have here is a glimpse into the real contours of capital counsel's world. It's an ideological business, as everyone familiar with it knows. The client becomes a reductionist cipher for the lawyer's unyielding opposition to the death penalty. The client's dignity and autonomy make good talking points -- and Lord knows that get talked about endlessly at capital sentencings -- but talking points is all they are.
Defense lawyers of course have the same right as everyone else to have opinions about the death penalty. But when the canons of "ethics" enable (and, truth be told, encourage) them to concoct a "fake news" mental state defense, and try to foist it on a client who'd prefer to go down fighting for a repulsive "principle," I respectfully submit that the canons need changing. We could start by nudging the legal profession toward more truth-orientation.