Jurors to weigh death for shooter in church slayings
Charleston, S.C. — Dylann Roof was convicted Thursday in the chilling slaughter of nine black church members who had welcomed him to their Bible study, a devastating crime in a country that was already deeply embroiled in racial tension.
The same federal jury that found Roof guilty of all 33 counts will reconvene next month to hear more testimony and weigh whether to sentence him to death. As the verdict was read, Roof just stared ahead, much as he did the entire trial. Family members of victims held hands and squeezed one another’s arms. One woman nodded her head every time the clerk said “guilty.”
Roof, 22, told FBI agents he wanted to bring back segregation or perhaps start a race war with the slayings. Instead, the single biggest change to emerge from the June 17, 2015, killings was the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse, where it had flown for 50 years over the Capitol or on the grounds. Roof appeared with the flag in several photos in a racist manifesto.
The shooting happened just months after Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was killed by white police officer Michael Slager when he fled a traffic stop in North Charleston. Police shootings around the county have heightened tensions between black communities and the law enforcement agencies that patrol them, sometimes resulting in protests and riots.
In Roof’s confession to the FBI, the gunman said he carried out the killings after researching “black on white crime” on the internet. He said he chose a church because that setting posed little danger to him.
Roof told the judge again Thursday that he wanted to act as his own attorney during the penalty phase. He will also face a death penalty trial in state court on nine murder charges.
In closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams mocked Roof for calling himself brave in his hate-filled journal and during his confession, saying the real bravery came from the victims who tried to stop him as he fired 77 bullets at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.
“Those people couldn’t see the hatred in his heart any more than they could see the .45-caliber handgun and the eight magazines concealed around his waist,” Williams said.
Defense lawyer David Bruck conceded Roof committed the slayings, but he asked jurors to look into his head and see what caused him to become so full of hatred, calling him a suicidal loner who never grasped the gravity of what he did.
The defense put up no witnesses during the seven-day trial. They tried to present evidence about his mental state, but the judge ruled that it did not have anything to do with Roof’s guilt or innocence.
Roof was just imitating what he saw on the internet and believed he had to give his life to “a fight to the death between white people and black people that only he” could see and act on, Bruck said.
The prosecutor’s 50-minute closing argument filled the court with tension. At times, the prosecutor raised his voice, saying Roof was a cold, calculated killer. Some family members of victims dabbed their eyes with tissues, and jurors appeared emotional when Williams, after apologizing to them, showed crime scene photos of each person killed alongside a small picture of them while alive.
Those pictures included the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, Emanuel AME’s pastor and a state senator; Myra Thompson, 59, who taught Bible study that night; Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian who stayed to support Thompson; and Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, who friends said sang like an angel.
Also slain were Daniel “Dapper Dan” Simmons, 74, nicknamed for his shiny shoes and fine hats; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a high school track coach; Ethel Lance, 70, the church sexton who kept the bathrooms and building immaculately clean; Susie Jackson, 87, who sang in the choir; and Tywanza Sanders, 26, Jackson’s nephew and an aspiring poet.
Three people survived the shooting. One survivor, Felicia Sanders, wouldn’t say if she wanted Roof put to death, but said he was a coward because he refused to look at her as she testified.
She plans a simple gesture to honor her friends the rest of her life. “I wear a smile, because if you look at the pictures of all nine, they’re smiling,” Sanders said.
The prosecutor said the good of all those faithful churchgoers prevailed over Roof’s hatred.
“This defendant chose to take their lives. He chose to break their bodies. But he does not get to choose who they were,” Williams said.
In a lengthy recording played earlier at trial, Roof told FBI agents he picked Mother Emanuel because of its historic significance in the black community. The church is the oldest in the South and one of its founders Denmark Vesey led a failed 1822 slave rebellion that drove the church underground.
Roof, who was convicted of federal hate crimes and obstruction of religion, said he had felt compelled to act because of the way blacks treated whites and said the shootings were “minuscule” in comparison.
The prosecutor recounted other evidence, like how Roof sat in the church parking lot for 28 minutes in his car, likely loading the 88 bullets — a number embraced symbolically by white supremacists — into eight magazines. Roof was handed a Bible as he sat in the prayer service for nearly 45 minutes before opening fire when the worshipers closed their eyes for the final prayer.
After the shootings, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley threw her support behind removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse. She had spent years in office calling it a settled issue.
“It is my hope that the survivors, the families, and the people of South Carolina can find some peace in the fact that justice has been served,” she said in a statement.