CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Dylann Roof sat quietly in court for most of last week, serving as his own lawyer. Facing the possibility of the death penalty for the 2015 massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Roof rarely voiced a request or an objection as a federal judge qualified scores of potential jurors.
Then suddenly on Friday morning, Roof piped up, asking the judge to inquire about a potential juror’s response to a court questionnaire regarding the concept of evil.
“What type of people does he consider to be evil?” Roof wanted to know.
When the potential juror returned to the courtroom, Gergel asked him.
“A bomber, a serial murderer, something along that line,” said the older, white man, defining an evil person as someone who enjoys hurting other people.
“It seems to me some people are evil and the world would be better off without them,” he said.
Time will soon tell whether a jury feels the world would be a better place without Roof. They will decide how lawful —and evil—it was for Roof to allegedly shoot nine black strangers dead after they welcomed him into their Wednesday night Bible study on June 17, 2015 in downtown Charleston.
As Roof’s trial begins Wednesday his court-appointed attorneys will be back in action per Roof’s request, tasked with defending a client accused of committing one of modern American history’s most infamous crimes. For a country that had agonized over assorted high-profile mass shootings, including the killing of 26 teachers and children at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012, Roof added a new public space to spill blood: a church. His alleged, massacre cost the lives of six women and three men, including the church’s pastor, all allegedly shot dead because of the color of their skin.
Upon his arrest a day later Roof told authorities he had hoped to start a “race war” with his actions. Instead his attack inspired unity in Charleston, with many residents attending vigils honoring the dead and calling for peace during gatherings outdoors. Some family members of the victims quickly offered forgiveness to Roof during a bond hearing, shocking observers who expected raw displays of anger.
“I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, whose 70-year-old mother, Ethel Lance, was killed. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Public leaders responded to the tragedy in significant fashion. President Barack Obama traveled to Charleston for the funeral of the church’s pastor, South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, delivering a eulogy and a surprise rendition of Amazing Grace. South Carolina’s government removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Statehouse, relocating the divisive symbol to a museum.
Since the victims were laid to rest, family members have sought to celebrate their lives. Scholarships and nonprofits have been established in their honor.
But as the trial of the United States v. Dylann Storm Roof opens Wednesday, the fond remembrances and healing that followed in the wake of the shooting will once again be contrasted with the ugliness of Roof’s alleged atrocity. Already the government has successfully moved to suppress publication of images of the blood-soaked crime scene, with U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel limiting their viewing to those people watching the trial at the federal courthouse. Roof faces 33 federal charges, including hate crimes that carry a potential penalty of life imprisonment or the death penalty.
The Charleston Federal Courthouse sits at the southwest corner of Charleston’s storied Four Corners of Law in downtown Charleston. The intersection at Broad and Meeting streets also is home to City Hall, St. Michael’s Church and the Charleston County Courthouse, where the murder trial of former South Carolina policeman Michael Slager ended in a mistrial on Monday. Slager had been filmed shooting unarmed motorist Walter Scott in the back after Scott fled from a traffic stop and struggled with Slager during a foot chase.
Residents and tourists walk the streets outside, just blocks away from some of the city’s finest mansions. These pedestrians have been joined lately by police clad in protective gear who conspicuously patrol the courthouse, sometimes with a K9 unit. Large police SUVs, some unmarked and others displaying U.S. Department of Homeland Security markings, cruise Charleston’s narrow streets.
While briefly representing himself last week after being found mentally competent to stand trial, Roof sat at a table inside the federal courthouse within a large, wood-paneled fourth floor courtroom. Watching the 22-year-old suspect, it can be hard to imagine him capable of causing the bloodbath in the basement of Emanuel A.M.E Church. When he did speak he was courteous to the judge, asking quietly for an additional few minutes at lunch, for example, or to take a short break. Roof’s lawyers, including famed death penalty expert David Bruck, sat powerless beside him as standby counsel. When they tried to speak on Roof’s behalf, they were admonished by the judge, who had previously warned Roof that his decision to represent himself was “unwise.”
Roof gave the impression of being lost and out of place. While everyone else was clad in professional attire, he wore a striped prison jumpsuit and displayed a messy head of hair, appearing in court almost as if he had rolled out of bed in his pajamas. But the stern countenances of his alleged victims’ relatives indicated the gravity of the crimes the young man is accused of committing. These relatives sat stone-faced in the courtroom during the repetitive process of juror qualification, listening impassively as Judge Gergel quizzed person after person about their opinions concerning life imprisonment and the death penalty, among other matters, before deciding whether to qualify them. Because Roof rarely objected to a juror’s inclusion, a qualified jury pool of 67 people was created in breakneck fashion.
Gergel led this questioning in a friendly, patient and semi-folksy manner, projecting a presence similar to a typical Southern minister, though Gergel is Jewish. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Gergel earned undergraduate and law degrees from Duke University before eventually forming his own practice in South Carolina and becoming a specialist in personal injury cases and medical malpractice.
Gergel was made a federal judge in 2010 after being nominated by President Obama. Throughout his professional life has maintained a strong interest in the civil rights history of South Carolina. He has extensively researched the life and legacy of former federal judge J. Waties Waring, whose dissenting opinion in a 1951 case helped lead the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its landmark desegregation ruling three years later in Brown v. Board of Education. The annex to the federal courthouse in Charleston is named in honor of the late judge.
Yet more than 60 years after schools were desegregated, racial problems persist in South Carolina, with at least one young man allegedly choosing to express his racist views by shooting dead at point-blank range nine black worshipers, aged 26 to 87.
Roof’s defense attorneys have offered for their client to plead guilty to the charges in exchange for a reprieve from the death penalty. Bullish federal prosecutors have declined the offer, feeling obliged to argue for Roof’s execution.
As the trial begins, Roof’s attorneys will again represent him through the guilt phase of the trial. Then, should he be convicted of his alleged crimes, Roof has elected to strike out on his own again, serving as his own lawyer as a jury considers his capacity for evil and whether to send him to prison or to his death.