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Judge sets trial for suspect in Charleston church shooting

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A white man charged with killing nine black parishioners at a Charleston church will stand trial next July, a judge ruled during a brief hearing Thursday.

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson set a July 11, 2016, trial date for Dylann Roof, 21, who faces multiple charges, including nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder stemming from the June 17 shootings.

Roof sat quietly during the proceedings in a gray-striped prison jump suit in a courtroom crowded with about 100 people.

He was presented copies of the indictments and public defender Ashley Pennington told the judge he would not seek bond at this time “based on the totality of the circumstances.”

The judge called Roof a flight risk, noting he was arrested in Shelby, North Carolina, about 250 miles away, the day after the parishioners were shot to death during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Following the hearing, a document was filed signed by the judge denying bond on the grounds that Roof is a flight risk and an unreasonable danger to the community.

Federal authorities have not said whether they will pursue hate crime charges against Roof, although Justice Department officials have said they broadly agree the shootings meet the legal requirements for a hate crime.

Also during the 25-minute hearing:

DEATH PENALTY

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, the local prosecutor, said the case “has the potential for a capital case” although the state has not yet said if it is seeking the death penalty.

THE DEFENDANT’S COMPETENCY

Pennington said that attorneys have been able to converse with Roof and that he understands the charges against him. “I don’t see any issues at all that are related to competency at this time,” Pennington said.

JUDGE’S CONCERNS

Nicholson last week issued a gag order preventing attorneys from discussing the case and temporarily blocking the release of police records and 911 calls. He wrote at the time he was concerned the release could affect Roof’s ability to get a fair trial. The judge said Thursday he is especially concerned if there are graphic photos of victims at the church or if screams might be heard on 911 recordings. He noted that in the South Carolina Victim’s Bill of Rights “a victim of a crime has the right to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Usually a request to block release of information or seek a gag order comes from the prosecution or the defense. But Nicholson, who issued the order on his own, is giving the defense, the prosecution and attorneys representing the victims’ families until the end of business on July 22 to file requests to be heard on the matter. If there are such requests, he will schedule a hearing.

MEDIA POSITION

Attorneys representing several media organizations, including The Associated Press, were in court Thursday prepared to argue for release of the documents, but no arguments were heard.

One of the attorneys, Taylor Smith, told reporters later that citizens of both South Carolina and the United States have access to information that is held by public bodies. He said to the extent a judge tries to restrict the discretion provided to public officials to release such information “that is where we will oppose a judge doing that.”

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