Life in prison or death only options for church shooter
Charleston, S.C. — The Confederate flag is gone from South Carolina’s Statehouse. The bullet holes have been patched in Emanuel AME’s fellowship hall. And now Dylann Roof will almost certainly spend the rest of his days in prison for killing nine black worshippers at the Charleston church.
A federal jury convicted Roof on all 33 counts Thursday. Those same jurors will decide in another phase of the trial starting Jan. 3 whether he faces the death penalty or life in prison for hate crimes at a historic African-American church whose founder led a failed slave revolt.
When that testimony starts, Roof will be his own attorney, having again fired defense lawyers who fear Roof is taking over because he doesn’t want them to present embarrassing evidence in their efforts to spare his life.
A stunning crime when it happened on June 17, 2015, became more revolting during six days of testimony. Roof fired 77 shots in the fellowship hall. More than 50 hit someone. Each of the nine people killed were struck at least five times. The medical examiner said the angles of some of the bullets seemed to show someone was holding a gun over victims who were lying still with their arms pulled against them. A prosecutor said they were executed like animals.
Roof didn’t hesitate to explain his racist beliefs during his confession to FBI agents and left a handwritten journal full of his views, such as blacks being inferior to whites. He also left behind carefully chosen pictures of himself holding the .45-caliber Glock he used in the killings, posing at historic Civil War and African-American sites and holding the Confederate flag.
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’s lawyers presented no witnesses and tried in vain to introduce evidence that problems with Roof’s mental health led to the killings. But U.S. Judge Richard Gergel said that kind of evidence is only permissible in the upcoming penalty phase, when Roof will represent himself.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams mocked Roof for calling himself brave, saying the real bravery came from the victims who tried to stop him.
“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.
Williams’ 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 — the same night she was licensed to preach; Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian who stayed to support Thompson; Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, who friends said sang like an angel and was also licensed to preach the day of the shootings; Daniel “Dapper Dan” Simmons, 74, nicknamed for his shiny shoes and fine hats; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a high school track coach heavily involved in the church’s youth programs; Ethel Lance, 70, the church sexton who kept the bathrooms and building immaculately clean; Susie Jackson, 87, who sang in the choir and sent generations through the church; and Tywanza Sanders, 26, Jackson’s nephew and an aspiring poet who wanted to work with children.
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.
Survivor Felicia Sanders has her own theory. She thinks Roof is a coward, too, because he refused to look at her as she testified. She refused to say after the verdicts were read Thursday whether she wants Roof to die for his crimes.
But she left a news conference with reporters smiling. It’s her way to honor her nine friends killed in their church.
“I wear a smile, because if you look at the pictures of all nine, they’re smiling,” Sanders said.