Judge shuts out public from Charleston Church shooter’s competency hearing

A federal judge decided Thursday to close the competency hearing for a white man accused of gunning down nine black parishioners in South Carolina last year.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said Thursday allowing the public into the hearing would jeopardize the accused gunman’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

“In reaching the decision to close the competency hearing in this case, the Court remains mindful of the strong interest of the press, the public and the victims’ families in open and transparent court proceedings,” Gergel wrote in a Nov. 16 court order. “The Court shares that commitment to an open courthouse and open court proceedings. But no one’s interest is served by a violation Defendant’s fair trial rights, and the Court will continue to weigh carefully and respectfully that delicate balance between two of the most sacred rights enshrined in the United States Constitution — the right to open court proceedings and an accused’s right to a fair trial.”

The accused gunman faces nearly three dozen federal offenses, including hate crime charges and obstruction of religion, for shooting and killing nine black parishioners during a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015.

Court documents describe the shooter as a self-identified white supremacist who targeted the historically black church with the intention of starting a race war.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The judge’s latest decision, as well as a separate order to delay the competency hearing until Monday, has pushed jury selection back for the third week in a row. Gergel says the process will resume Nov. 29, though surviving victims and their families have begun to question the constant postponements.

“The delays create the impression that perhaps there is something else afoot,” said Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of the Emanuel AME Church, during court proceedings Friday, according to USA Today.

Carl Muller, a lawyer for the Greenville News and USA Today, argued he’s never seen a judge close a competency hearing in his 39 years of practice.

Gergel said the medical examiner’s competency report, delivered to the court Tuesday evening, isn’t “a normal medical examiner’s report” and that preserving the jury pool at the trial’s “most vulnerable” moment remains a top priority.

“We are just trying to do it right,” he said, per USA Today. “We don’t want to do it over again. We want to do this one time.”

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