CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Myra Thompson always dreamed of suiting up in something from the fashion label St. John. It was only at her funeral when that wish finally came true.
Thompson’s daughter Denise Quarles described how she dressed her mother in June 2015 following her mother’s death during Dylann Roof’s racist shooting rampage in the basement of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston.
Quarles’s beautiful and fashionable mother had previously, and eerily, specified to her daughter how she wanted to appear when she died, outlining that her nail polish should be natural and her hair should remain gray, with no black dye added. Thompson did not specify her outfit, but Quarles splurged on clothing from St. John, even though her mother had previously refrained from a similar purchase because the price tag “had a comma in it.”
Quarles, as well as three other young women and one man, testified Thursday about the loss of their parents, all of whom perished at the hands of convicted killer Roof, 22, who later in the day on Thursday was revealed to have written a nearly 40-page jailhouse statement in which he disparaged almost every type of person on the planet, including blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, gays, and his fellow whites. Roof was convicted in December on 33 counts related to the massacre he carried out on June 17, 2015, at the conclusion of a Bible study at the historic black church.
Sisters of the victims and longtime friends of the deceased also shared their memories on the stand on Thursday, educating a jury at the Charleston Federal Courthouse that is charged with deciding whether to imprison Roof for life or sentence him to death.
Acting as his own attorney, Roof objected to some of these witness’s testimony, which he deemed “excessive and prejudicial” in a motion.
“My standby counsel and I have noticed that everyone in the courtroom is struggling with the emotional nature of this testimony,” Roof wrote. “Lots of people have been crying—jurors, courtroom personnel, audience members, even the Court and Counsel for the government.”
Roof asked for more breaks to limit the emotional impact of the testimony, and he found only a semi-sympathetic response from United States District Judge Richard Gergel. While Gergel advised government prosecutors to be more efficient with their time and to refrain from comforting sobbing witnesses, he said that the testimony in the sentencing phase of the trial had been appropriate.
“There’s no antiseptic way to do this,” said Gergel. “I really feel like this motion exaggerates and mischaracterizes the circumstance of this court.”
As Quarles continued her testimony Thursday, she described her mother as a mirthful, loquacious and supportive presence in her life. They’d talk multiple times a day and sometimes even watch television together while chatting on the phone. Their favorite show was the home buying program House Hunters.
“The rule was I couldn’t talk during the episode. We would debrief during the commercial break,” she said.
More seriously, Quarles described her mother as a role model and guiding presence, both before and after her death.
“She taught me what being a woman is how to be a mom how to be a grandparent how to be a friend,” she said.
The cheerful young woman then adopted a darker and defiant tone as she recalled how Roof betrayed her mother and the other victims who had welcomed into the Bible study.
“For her to die welcoming a stranger into a church where she grew up, where I got baptized, where she got married…for that to happen where I call home, it pisses me off, but I wont let what happened in the church stop me from being there.”
Other witnesses spoke of similar pain and frustration.
Rita Whidbee met her friend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton at South Carolina State University, where both women ran track and field. Years later Coleman-Singleton earned a master’s degree in speech therapy and moved in with Whidbee and her husband, charming the married couple enough to be able to jump in their bed on Saturday mornings and ask, “What are we doing today?” Coleman-Singleton also tagged along on the couple’s honeymoon.
Whidbee told the jury how she, Coleman-Singleton, and two other college friends have been inseparable the last three decades, taking multiple trips together, often to the beaches of Destin, Florida.
In 2015, for the first time, the women planned to allow their daughters to accompany them on the trip. Weeks before it was to occur, Coleman-Singleton, 45, was killed. Whidbee wanted to cancel the trip in the wake of the tragedy, but Coleman-Singleton’s teenage daughter, Camryn, persuaded her to keep the plans to honor her late mother. There was just one wrinkle:
“When you guys are hugged up with your daughters, who will I be hugged up with?” said Camryn, who is the spitting image of her mother.
“You lost one mother,” Whidbee responded to Camryn, “but you gained three more.”
Camryn then followed Whidbee on the stand, praising her mother for being an attentive and loving single mother to her and her two siblings. Her mother, who worked as a speech pathologist and track coach at a South Carolina high school, was extremely popular.
When prosecutors showed a picture of the family at the high school graduation of Camryn’s oldest brother, Coleman-Singleton had a big smile on her face.
“I couldn’t wait ’til I graduated high school so she could look at me the same way,” said Camryn, who is a high school junior.
Like the three Singleton siblings, the four daughters of Depayne Middleton must now also navigate adolescence and young adulthood without their mother. Two of Middleton’s daughters took the stand to remember their mother, a talented singer who in recent years raised the girls as a single mom.
Middleton’s oldest daughter, Gracyn, described on the witness stand how her mother was an extremely dedicated woman who would not allow her daughters to quit or suffer unfair treatment. Gracyn Middleton said she considered her mother her best friend.
“It was really easy to talk to her, about anything,” she said. “She was just so intelligent, so smart, we could have the best conversations.”
Middleton’s second-oldest daughter, Kaylin Doctor, spoke of her mother’s charitable nature.
“She prayed for people she didn’t even know,” she said. “She would give the shirt off her back.”
As Doctor looked at a picture of her kissing her beaming mother during Doctor’s high-school graduation she became emotional.
“It was the last thing she saw me do, saw me accomplish,” the young woman said.
Depayne Middleton’s daughters were followed by Dan Simmons Jr., whose father and namesake was also killed in the bloodbath at Emanuel A.M.E. church.
Simmons explained that his father was permitted to carry a concealed weapon and that he often carried his gun, even bringing it with him to church on Sundays. But for some reason on the day of the shooting, Daniel Simmons, Sr. left the gun in his car. Simmons regretted his father could not have saved lives, including his own.
Simmons Jr. chronicled the life of his father, detailing how his dad served in the Army, worked as one of the first black Greyhound bus drivers, became a counselor, and tirelessly served the A.M.E. church during his 74 years of life.
Before being gunned down, Simmons Sr. focused his attention on elevating and encouraging others, said his son.
“He wanted you to be productive,” said the younger Simmons. “Take your life and be meaningful with your life.”
Simmons also said his father enjoyed debating ideas with others.
“He enjoyed talking to people who had a different viewpoint than he did,” said Simmons Jr. “He loved to provide resolution to the hardest problems that could not be solved.”
One person with whom he surely could have debated differing viewpoints is Roof, who penned an extensive explanation of his racist viewpoints sometime in the six weeks that followed the shooting. Authorities searched his cell at the Charleston County jail on August 3, 2015, after jail staff became concerned over Roof’s quotation of a book associated with copycat suicides, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in a letter to a relative.
Lauren Knapp, an intelligence analyst at the jail, took the stand late Thursday to explain that while jail staff did not find any weapons Roof could use to hurt himself during the search of his cell, they did find drawings made by Roof featuring white supremacist symbols and the lengthy note describing his racist views.
Knapp read the note quickly in court as page after page, nearly 40 in total, flashed across screens showing Roof’s small handwriting filling nearly every line.
Roof opens the letter by referencing his rush to commit the killings.
“I would like to finish writing my opinions. I was unable to finish before because I was in a hurry to get to Charleston,” he wrote, adding that, “I would consider myself well-versed on almost every issue facing white people around the world.”
He first focuses his attention on Jews, who he called “an enigma,” conceding they have made many positive contributions to civilization.
But, he continued, “the bad outweighs the good.” He assailed Jews for controlling the moviemaking and publishing industries and not letting non-Jewish screenwriters and authors succeed. Yet one of the few good things about this circumstance, he continued, is that all the money Jews have occasionally results in wonderful, big-budget Hollywood films.
“All of this being said, the Jews are undoubtedly our enemies…, he wrote “an obstacle to saving our race.”
Roof next commented on Hispanics, whom he noted were growing in numbers in the United States and should only be saved if they identify fully as whites.
“We have to do something before they completely overrun us… The bottom line is they are enemies and introduce crime and violence into our country,” Roof wrote, making no mention of the irony of his statement.
Muslims practice a “toxic religion” and are “formidable,” Roof wrote, concerned about their growing presence directly across the Atlantic.
“I feel sorry for and a little bit scared for my European brothers,” he wrote.
Roof claimed homosexuality is a mental illness and “a severe one at that.” He opined about socialism and Slavs and even expressed admiration for east Asian countries, including Korea and Japan, noting their near-homogenous racial cultures.
He chastised fellow whites for turning a blind eye to the supposed misdeeds of blacks and other non-white races while praising himself for having the courage to confront the problem.
“I am 21 years old and I don’t play pretend,” Roof wrote. “I would rather live in prison knowing I took action for my race than live with the torture of sitting idle.”
He complained his words had been taken out of context by police and the media and cautioned people against believing anything said about him by his family or people claiming to be his friend.
On and on his statement went, at one point denigrating Christianity and at another point suggesting the invasion of South Africa to liberate white people.
Roof mentioned his belief that he would eventually be pardoned for his crimes and that “one day Adolf Hitler will be inducted as a saint.”
If whites did not unite to remedy all these problems, Roof said the outlook was bleak.
“Even your most brain-dead white person could see there is nothing good on the horizon,” he wrote.
The sentencing phase of Roof’s trial continues Friday.