Oral arguments have begun in the trial of Dylann Roof, the white nationalist who killed nine people in a 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Defense attorneys argued from several angles that Roof was unfit to stand trial for the shooting at the historic Black church and that the federal charges themselves were improper.

The trial is taking place in the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. A motion in 2020 noted that Roof had been diagnosed with various mental disorders and mirrors the current argument that he is “too disconnected from reality” to stand trial.

"When Dylann Roof represented himself at his capital trial, he was a 22-year-old, ninth-grade dropout diagnosed with schizophrenia-spectrum disorder, autism, anxiety, and depression, who believed his sentence didn't matter because white nationalists would free him from prison after an impending race war," it read.

Roof’s lawyers have also argued that federal prosecutors should have left the case to Roof’s state charges, which landed him nine life sentences.

“The federal trial shouldn't have happened at all. South Carolina swiftly brought capital charges for Roof's wholly-intrastate crime. Months later, federal prosecutors intervened, using novel theories of jurisdiction to seek their own death sentence - a move unwelcomed by the state, who viewed the federal prosecution as unnecessary and disruptive."

The chief obstacle for defense lawyers might be Roof himself, who has been entirely unapologetic and said in the past that he is mentally fit.

Roof chose to represent himself during the penalty phase of the trial, telling the jury, “ There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically… Anything you heard from my lawyers in the last phase, I ask you to forget it.”

His writing in jail has also given prosecutors ammunition. One journal entry they presented read, "I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did… I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed."

US Justice Department attorney Ann O'Connell Adams told the court that Roof has intelligence, understood what was going on and "didn't have a shred of doubt" his charges could lead to death.

"No error occurred at the penalty phase. The district court did not improperly preclude Roof from introducing mitigating evidence or admit improper aggravating evidence that characterized Roof or the parishioners in a prejudicial way, and any error was harmless. The death penalty was not plainly erroneous based on Roof's age or mental condition," a brief from the Justice Department says. "Roof's convictions rest on sound legal and constitutional grounds."

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Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina, June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Miczek/File Photo