By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist accused of murdering nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, South Carolina church last year, began acting as his own lawyer at his federal death penalty proceedings on Monday.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel granted Roof's request to represent himself at trial but told the defendant it was unwise to cast aside his seasoned attorneys.
Roof, 22, did not say why he wanted to take the lead in his case. The move could give him the opportunity to question the survivors of the shooting if they are called as witnesses.
Roof also faces 33 counts of hate crimes, obstruction of religion and firearms charges stemming from the shooting, which occurred during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.
Prosecutors, who say he planned the attack for months, are seeking the death penalty.
Gergel ruled on Friday that Roof was mentally competent to stand trial, following concerns raised by defense attorneys about their client's ability to understand the nature of the proceedings against him and to assist in his own defense.
That decision paved the way for jury selection to resume on Monday after a temporary delay this month for a competency evaluation and hearing. Then, in another twist, Gergel said he received a motion from Roof late Sunday seeking to represent himself.
In a Charleston courtroom, the judge asked Roof a series of questions to determine whether he understood the charges, the punishment he faced and the trial duties he was undertaking.
Roof, dressed in a striped gray and white prison jumpsuit, answered "Yes" or "Yes, sir."
"I find that his decision is knowing, intelligent and voluntary," the judge said.
Gergel instructed Roof's legal team to remain on standby, including lead defense lawyer David Bruck, who is considered an expert in death penalty cases.
Once jury questioning got under way, Roof mostly responded "no" each time the judge asked if he had any follow-up questions or objections to potential jurors.
Gergel dismissed several people who expressed conflicted feelings about capital punishment or said a death sentence should always be the penalty for murder.
One woman said she could be fair and impartial but admitted being sickened by the crime, which shook the country and stoked a debate over U.S. race relations. Gergel struck the woman from serving as a juror.
Twelve jurors and six alternates will be chosen to hear testimony.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Steve Orlofsky)