In Curia

How Racist Killer Dylann Roof Met Justice at the Four Corners of Law

A distinguished Civil War historian attended the Roof trial and sentencing last week. This is what he saw.

01.14.17 12:02 AM ET

CHARLESTON, South Carolina—The trial of Dylann Storm Roof took place in the historic heart of this city, the intersection of Meeting and Broad streets known as the “Four Corners of Law.”

The City Hall, an architectural gem designed by Robert Mills circa 1800, and the county courthouse, an exquisite neo-classical structure dating to the 1790s, represent the law of city and state on the north side of Broad. Across from them the federal district courthouse and post office, a massive granite structure completed in 1896, looms above the city to signify the ascendance of federal power after the Civil War.

Across the street is St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, representing the law of God. It was built in the 1750s and its adjacent graveyard is filled with tumbled tombstones that honor the illustrious families of the city and state: Pinckney, Rutledge, Hayne, and others. They came from a wealthy class of planters whose slaves produced sufficient rice, indigo, and later cotton to make Charleston one of the richest cities on the Eastern seaboard until the Civil War.

During the war, Union soldiers used the tall white spire of St. Michael’s to site their guns, whose shells forced the families living south of Broad Street to abandon their mansions. When Charleston finally surrendered in February 1865, U.S. Colored Troops were given the honor of entering the city first. As they marched up Meeting Street past St. Michaels singing “John Brown’s Body,” the city’s slaves, proclaiming their own emancipation, fell in behind.

During the Dylann Roof trial the parishioners of St. Michael’s strung a large banner between the columns of its portico declaring solidarity with his victims slain at another venerable church a few blocks away: “#Charleston Strong, Emanuel, God with us.”

Mother Emanuel, as it was eventually known, was born in rebellion against white supremacy. Morris Brown, a free black preacher, left the white Methodist church in protest and in 1818 founded the first African Methodist Episcopal church. Among the church’s founders was also Denmark Vesey, a Caribbean-born slave who had bought his freedom with lottery winnings.

In 1822, white leaders accused Vesey of organizing a slave conspiracy to seize the city’s arsenal, slaughter whites, liberate slaves in nearby plantations, and make their way by ship to the black republic of Haiti. White officials exaggerated the scope and organization of the plot, in part to rally terrified whites in defense of slavery. Vesey and nearly three dozen others were convicted and hanged; others were deported. Whites burned the original AME church and drove Morris Brown out of the city.

A few years later, Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher in Virginia, responded to Jesus’s prophecy that “the last shall be first” with a slave uprising that left dozens of whites murdered. God’s law, at least as blacks interpreted it, proved dangerous to slavery. Charleston outlawed black churches, but the parishioners of Emanuel worshipped in secret until after the Civil War. After a devastating earthquake flattened their frail wooden church, the parishioners of “Mother Emanuel,” as it was known by then, in 1891 raised a new church of brick and stucco on the north side of what is now Calhoun Street.

This was the building Dylann Roof entered on Wednesday evening, June 17, 2015, knowing that the Bible study group met there each week. Roof sat with 12 members of the church for about 40 minutes, staring ahead without speaking, while they discussed a Bible passage. It was not until they stood and closed their eyes to pray that Roof pulled out his Glock .45 semi-automatic pistol and began firing. He carried eight magazines with 88 bullets in all; pausing to reload each time he emptied a magazine.

“Why are you doing this?” cried Tywanza Sanders, wounded and trying to protect his 87-year-old aunt.

“You are raping white women and taking over the country… I have to do this. I have to finish my mission,” he answered, pumping more bullets into Sanders and his aunt.

Before it was over nine lay dead or dying.

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Tywanza Sanders’s anguished question kept reverberating through the trial: “Why are you doing this?” Racism and hatred, of course, but where did that come from? Roof is not from Charleston. He was born in 1994 in Columbia, the state capital, located about two hours inland by freeway, and he lived most of his life in or around that city. Roof’s grandfather, a successful lawyer, was known in Columbia for his liberal views on race. The first line of Dylann Roof’s website manifesto absolved his family: “I was not raised in a racist home or environment.”

His father worked in construction and made good money, at least before the crash of 2008. After repeating the ninth grade, at 14 Dylann Roof dropped out of school. Without any vocation or purpose, he lived by turns with each of his parents, who divorced, and his stepmother, and passed his time playing video games, getting high on drugs and alcohol, now and then working landscaping jobs for a friend, and spending an inordinate amount of time alone in his room with his computer.

Weeks before the killings, he aroused the suspicion of police for lurking around a shopping mall outside of Columbia; he was arrested for drug possession (Suboxone) and later for trespassing at the mall. Shortly after his second arrest, with money his parents gave him for his 21st birthday, he bought a pistol. If he had had more money, he would have bought an AK-47.

On the witness stand, FBI Special Agent Joseph Hamski shined a bright light into the dark, sinister cave of racism and bigotry Dylann Roof entered on the internet. His first encounter was the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, successor to the pro-segregation White Citizens Councils with strong ties to the Republican Party. Its favorite hobbyhorse is an imagined scourge of black on white crime, a fixation that stuck in Roof’s untutored mind from the day he first encountered it.

“From here I found out about the Jewish problem,” he wrote, referring to his schooling on Stormfront, a neo-Nazi website begun by David Duke in 1990. Along the way, Roof’s self-education also embraced neo-Confederate ideology, which portrays the Old South as a model for America. With his gun and Confederate flags he spent days before the murders posing in front of monuments and historic sites connected to slavery and the Civil War.

Roof’s pleas on Stormfront for collaboration with other white supremacists in the area went unanswered. “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet,” he lamented. “Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

His online schooling took place with no family members, girlfriends, teachers, or clergy to challenge the new ideas taking root in his morally retarded mind. As he learned alone, so Dylann Roof would act alone. Imagining himself the brave champion of the white race, he entered the Mother Emanuel church to kill women and men he knew would be defenseless.

***

Under federal law Roof was charged with hate crimes because he killed and attempted to kill people solely because of their race, and because the violence took place inside a church, he was also charged under federal law with obstructing the exercise of religion, and a powerful religious atmosphere permeated the trial.

This was especially true during the sentencing phase, three and a half days during which family members testified to the horrible impact of the crime on the living. Witnesses are not allowed to say anything about the penalty they believe the defendant deserves. Whether out of spite, shame, or cowardice, Roof sat in stone-like silence, refusing to even look at the witnesses as they poured out their pain.

The most moving act of this drama took place after the jury came to its unanimous decision in favor of death late on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday morning the courtroom was filled, but before announcing his response to the jury’s recommendation, Judge Richard Gergel allowed the prosecution to present additional family members who wanted to be heard.

Instead of taking the witness stand they came to a podium, some facing Dylann Roof, others addressing Judge Gergel. Even the jury, their tasks completed, asked to witness this dramatic last act.

All prohibitions as to remarks about the defendant were now set aside, and the families of the Emanuel Nine issued an amazing mix of Christian forgiveness and chastisement. Many urged Roof to repent before he met his death, or he would burn in Hell forever. One woman even offered to pray with him in prison. Others offered scolding punishment, taunting him for his cowardice, mocking his “mission” to ignite race war, and, more than once, wishing he would rot in Hell.

More than one predicted that angels of the slain would be “comin’ to get you” and carry you to Hell.

“I can hear you breathing from here,” one man whispered across the room to Roof after warning him of the awaiting inferno. “You may not be looking at me, but you can hear me,” and “you are going to be hearing me until your dying day.”

As we filed out of the courtroom, I could hear a soft humming musical sound. It became more audible as people made their way down the hall, humming louder, then singing about the “Lord coming to carry me …” as they entered the elevator that took them down to the street and to the Four Corners of Law.

On Tuesday the jury had announced its sentence under federal law, but that Wednesday members of the Emanuel family declared a second, much longer sentence according to God’s law.