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Accused South Carolina church shooter defended by attorneys again

By Harriet McLeod

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Accused white supremacist Dylann Roof got his attorneys back on Monday, after changing his mind about representing himself in the first phase of his federal trial for the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church last year.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel on Monday granted a request that Roof had filed through a handwritten motion on Sunday. The 22-year-old facing the death penalty indicated that he wanted his defense team restored at least temporarily, and that he later wished to represent himself during the trial's sentencing phase.

Roof's decision was "knowing, intelligent, voluntary and timely," Gergel said in a court in Charleston, South Carolina, where Roof stood before him in a gray and white prison jumpsuit.

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Roof 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.

On Wednesday, attorneys will begin the final phase of jury selection, picking 12 jurors and six alternates who will hear the case.

Attorneys expect the first phase of the trial, in which the jury weighs guilt, to last about a week, followed by the sentencing phase, which is expected to take some time.

Roof would plead guilty if federal prosecutors agreed to a sentence of life in prison without parole, his lawyers said previously. Prosecutors, who say he planned the attack for months, have refused.

The massacre of the nine churchgoers, gunned down after welcoming a stranger into their prayer group, shocked Americans of all races and sparked debate about race relations in the country.

Roof requested to represent himself throughout the trial when final jury selection began last week. But on Sunday, he wrote that he had changed his mind at least temporarily.

"Can you let me have them back for the guilt phase, and then let me represent myself for the sentencing phase of the trial?" Roof wrote in ink on lined notebook paper.

Gergel, in granting the motion, advised Roof to keep his representation through sentencing.

Roof's attorneys indicated in court filings last week that he wants to suppress evidence during sentencing. While details about his mental health were not publicly disclosed, his attorneys cited media reports that noted delusions suffered by many defendants with paranoid schizophrenia, who may desire to die.

Gergel said he would not weigh in on the defense dispute.

Roof also faces the death penalty in a state murder trial set to begin early next year.

(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by James Dalgleish)