United States v. Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof (second from left) during the initial stage of jury selection for his trial for the murder of nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, September 2016
Robert Maniscalco
Dylann Roof (second from left) during the initial stage of jury selection for his trial for the murder of nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, September 2016

In early January, three weeks into the federal trial of Dylann Roof, who killed nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, a prison guard named Lauren Knapp gave testimony about The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Officer Knapp is a lanky woman with short bleached hair and a blunt manner who does not bring to mind a scholar of German Romanticism. From the witness chair Knapp said that in early August 2015, while reading the correspondence of prisoners, looking for references to gangs or to crimes, she came upon the “young Werther letter.”

The two-page text was the first outgoing note written by Roof at the Charleston County Detention Center. Its swooning prose sounded strange to Knapp, who took down a sentence or two and discovered, using a search engine, that these matched an English edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther—“the German book,” she called it. Knapp learned that “the German book” was a novel about unrequited love whose narrator commits suicide and that “it was supposed to have started a suicide fever.” After that, Knapp said, “it was decided to put prisoner Roof on suicide protocol.”

The first measure in the protocol is to remove a prisoner—Roof was in solitary confinement—and perform a search of his cell. This turned up a six-by-nine-inch legal pad that Roof had filled with a thirty-page essay.

“The government introduces the ‘jailhouse manifesto,’” says Assistant US Attorney Jay Richardson, lead prosecutor in US v. Roof. Questioning Officer Knapp, Richardson holds in the air a Ziploc bag with the legal pad—“Government exhibit #500.”

“I object,” says Dylann Roof, rising to his feet at the defense table.

Dylann Roof is a man-child—120 pounds, a blond bowl haircut, and a triangular, adolescent face. He has a ghostly tenor voice. Roof has decided to defend himself during this part of his trial. “I object on the same grounds as before,” he says, raspily. The Werther letter is his possession and not the government’s, he says uncertainly, and it, as well as other of his writings in jail, should be barred from evidence.

“Overruled,” says Judge Richard Gergel, whose long vowels sound like the upstate of South Carolina, his place of origin. Gergel’s home is Richland County, which contains the state capital at Columbia and which happens also to be the defendant’s home county.

“Prisoners’ writings are not their own. And I will cawl it the ‘jailhouse…


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