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Jury Selection Postponed In Trial For Charleston Shooter Dylann Roof


A federal judge in South Carolina has postponed jury selection in the high-profile hate crime trial of Dylann Roof. He's the self-proclaimed white supremacist who's accused of killing nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston last year. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now in Charleston. And, Debbie, this morning, proceedings were put on hold for a closed-door hearing. What was that about?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, the court wouldn't say. It was a somewhat surprising development just moments into the trial. Everyone had come for the start of this very high-profile case, a lot of people paying attention. Relatives of the victims had filled half the courtroom. Two of the survivors were sitting on the front row. Dylann Roof was then brought in. He's 22 years old now.

He was wearing his gray striped prison jumpsuit. And then U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel announced that he had a motion that required his immediate attention. That motion was sealed. He held a closed-door hearing involving only Dylann Roof and his defense team. The public wasn't allowed. Even the government attorneys were not allowed. They didn't object. Gergel had said that he needed the closed hearing to protect attorney-client privilege and to protect a fair and impartial jury and a fair trial.

That hearing lasted about an hour and 40 minutes. And the judge has not released a transcript or revealed any reason for the hearing. And Dylann Roof's lawyers have not said what transpired during that time.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what about all those potential jurors who reported for duty today?

ELLIOTT: Well, the latest word from the court is that jury selection is scheduled to resume now on Wednesday morning. Court was not going to be in session tomorrow anyway because of Election Day - so jury selection really only pushed back a day here. An earlier screening process had narrowed the pool to about 512 people. They'll be questioned in groups of 10 as they start trying to find people who can be impartial as they weigh this case.

Now, that's not going to be easy. This jury pool is from the Charleston area. And, you know, you recall this was a very emotional case that rocked the community. You were here, Audie. Nine people gunned down during bible study in one of the South's oldest black churches. Authorities say Roof was trying to start a race war. He's facing 33 federal charges, including hate crimes and obstructing religion. And federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in this case.

CORNISH: Right, federal prosecutors - this is taking place in Charleston's Federal Courthouse. It's right across the street from the county courthouse, and that's where another high-profile and racially charged trial is underway. I know the trial of Michael Slager, the white ex-cop accused of murdering an unarmed black motorist, Walter Scott - that's where that's supposed to take place. What's the scene there?

ELLIOTT: Well, there's heightened security. Police are posted near both courthouses. But commerce continues. The sidewalks and roads are open and Charleston is, you know, going about its business as best it can. The mayor and community leaders have called for calm no matter what happens in these cases. But just today, we learned there were new threats of racial violence coming in the form of anonymous letters.

According to police reports, at least nine letters were sent to a park, several hotels and Emanuel AME Church, the site of the massacre. They use racial slurs. They appear to target Jews and talk about killing other non-white groups. So there's a joint investigation now underway between the police department in Charleston and the FBI.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Charleston. Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.