Dylann Roof likely has autism, but preferred death over that label, court records show

FILE - This June 18, 2015, file photo, provided by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office shows Dylann Roof. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Convicted Emanuel AME Church gunman and death row inmate Dylann Roof may have autism spectrum disorder, in addition to several other mental health issues.

Court documents unsealed Wednesday show Roof’s attorneys planned to use his possible mental health problems as a defense in his federal hate crimes trial last year.

Roof balked at the entire notion, telling a judge he would rather die than be labeled as having autism.

“If the price is that people think I'm autistic, then it's not worth it,” Roof told U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel during a hearing in November 2016, only days before the scheduled start of his trial.


The unsealed documents show Roof found out about his attorneys’ plan to use his possible autism as a mitigating defense during his trial. The discovery prompted Roof to write a letter to federal prosecutors accusing his lawyers of misconduct, calling them lying manipulators, and saying they should be disbarred.

It’s what ultimately prompted Roof to ask for the right to represent himself in his federal trial, a request later granted by Judge Gergel, but only after Roof passed a mental competency evaluation his attorneys asked him to undergo.

“It's just not good for me if I'm labeled autistic,” Roof said, according to court transcripts. “If people think I have autism, it discredits the reason why I did the crime. Once you've got that label, there is no point in living anyway.”

Roof was sentenced to death in January after being found guilty on 33 federal hate crime charges in connection to the racially motivated murders of nine people during a Bible study inside Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015.

The documents unsealed Wednesday show Roof told the judge he preferred not to have any mitigating evidence presented on his behalf during the trial. He told the judge he only wanted the prosecution to present its evidence, and that was all.

“They are going to say I have autism, but I don’t,” Roof said, even claiming an autism expert hired by his attorneys had been coached. “I don't really think they believe I have autism. I think they are just taking whatever they can and using whatever they can … because they don't have anything else to use.”

David Bruck, Roof’s lead attorney at the time, said based on the expert’s analysis, Roof “is a geyser of autistic symptoms.”

“It is our expectation that (our expert’s) testimony will be to confirm the diagnosis of autism,” Bruck said. “He has fixations on the most trivial and, I would have to say, irrational concerns.

“He has this preoccupation with these physical sensations of how things feel on his skin and his waist and whether his pants touch his shoes … There is a great deal of autistic symptomatology,” Bruck went on to say.

Bruck also mentioned Roof’s tendency to identify people who smiled a lot as his friends, including jail staff and certain mental health experts, as opposed to others.

“People are a language that he neither understands nor speaks,” Bruck said. “That is autism and that is what we are seeing.”

But Roof argued that his attorneys were mistaking his personality traits for autism.

“I don't have autism,” Roof said during the November pre-trial hearing. “I don't want them to say that because it's not true.”

Afterward, Judge Gergel asked Roof what he thought autism was. Court records show Roof said autism “is when somebody can't recognize social cues.”

Roof thought it was unfair that the autism expert hired by his attorneys used medical information from his childhood on which to base her diagnosis.

“She told me herself if she hadn't had the information from when I was a kid that she wouldn't have been able to diagnose me,” Roof said. “If she was judging me now, she wouldn't have been able to say I have autism.”

Bruck, however, said Roof’s vehement objection to being labeled as having autism mainly boiled down to embarrassment over the fact that it would become public knowledge and wind up on his Wikipedia page.

This, Bruck said during the hearing, was a sign of several other mental disorders Roof suffered, including psychosis and delusions, severe anxiety, depression and even early signs of schizophrenia.

Judge Gergel on Wednesday denied a request for a retrial by Roof's attorneys.

Roof is currently on death row at the United States Penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana.

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