CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Dylann Roof will be executed for shooting dead nine worshipers during a Bible study in a historically black church, making him the first person sentenced to death for federal hate crimes.
A 12-person jury returned the sentence Tuesday at the Charleston Federal Courthouse after deliberating for three hours. The punishment follows Roof’s conviction in December on 33 charges related to the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015.
Roof listened to the sentence without much expression, occasionally putting on a closed-lip smile that looked like a nervous reaction.
Roof’s murder of the parishioners shocked a public already nauseated by mass shootings in seemingly every place imaginable by introducing a new setting for bloodshed: church. His victims ranged in age from 26 to 87 and included a pastor and state senator, family matriarchs and patriarchs, a retired teacher, a track coach and speech therapist, a librarian, two mothers of teenage children, and a young college graduate.
Two women and two children survived the shooting by hiding under a desk and table as 77 bullets flew through the basement walls and victims’ bodies that evening at the conclusion of Bible study, the gunfire erupting from Roof’s Glock .45 just as the group closed their eyes and stood to pray. Another woman was spared by Roof. He told her she could live in order to tell others of the killings.
“Did I shoot you yet?” Polly Sheppard recalled Roof asking her as he pointed a gun at her body. “I’m not going to,” Roof said. “I need you to tell the story.”
Assorted observers, aghast at the consequences of Roof’s ruthless shooting rampage, sought to counteract his actions through public displays of unity and love. At Roof’s bond hearing two days after the shooting, numerous relatives of the shooting victims drew on their religious faith and told the then-21-year-old defendant they forgave him. Meanwhile, Charleston residents gathered at public vigils to honor the dead and promote a message of unity, at one point marching across Charleston’s iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge by the thousands.
President Obama traveled to Charleston for the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, who was also a South Carolina state senator. Obama eulogized Pinckney and, to much acclaim, then broke into song, leading a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Weeks later South Carolina leaders removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the statehouse in the capital, Columbia, and relocated the banner to a museum. Regarded by many as a symbol of hate and intolerance, the flag was featured in many pictures Roof took of himself with guns before committing his crime in Charleston.
But as all these groups of people sought to promote healing in a nation continually fractured by gun violence and racial conflicts, Roof sat in a jail cell in Charleston and wrote a nearly 40-page statement that offered no apologies and denigrated almost every race of people on this earth, including white people whom he deemed “cowards” for not standing up to Roof’s perceived assaults by the “lower races.” This statement, along with drawings filled with racist symbols, complemented another racist manifesto Roof posted online on the afternoon before his crime.
During Tuesday’s sentencing proceedings, Roof, dressed in a green sweater and speaking softly as he represented himself in court, addressed the jury considering his fate, saying that while “I didn’t have to do anything… I felt like I had to do it and I still feel like I had to do it.” He mostly avoided talking about his crime and victims, offering no remorse, but conceding, “I think that, ummm, it’s safe to say no one in their right mind wants to go in a church and kill people.”
Roof then disputed the government’s depiction of him as a man filled with hatred, especially for black people.
“Wouldn’t it be fair to say the prosecution hates me since they’re trying to give me the death penalty?” Roof asked.
“My point is,” he continued, “anyone who hates anything in their mind has a good reason for it.”
Despite the content of his racist writings, a taped confession, and dozens of photos featuring Roof posing with guns and racist symbols, Roof told the jury that the government has an inaccurate idea of his character.
“I would say in this case the prosecution and anyone else who hates me are the ones who have been misled,” said Roof. “Anyone including the prosecution who thinks I’m filled with hatred has no idea what real hate is.
“They don’t know anything about me,” said Roof. “They don’t know what real hatred looks like. They think they do but they don’t really.”
Roof finished his closing statement by appealing to jurors to stand up for their beliefs, noting that only one juror has to object to the death penalty in order for him to receive the punishment of life imprisonment.
“From what I’ve been told, I have a right to ask you to give me a life sentence. But I’m not sure what good that would do anyway,” said Roof.
“That’s all,” he added quietly before returning to his seat.
Throughout the trial, as Roof alternated between representing himself and letting court-appointed counsel handle his legal needs, the defense offered little argument to the prosecution’s case. Roof and his lawyers chose not to cross examine the many government witnesses who testified in the guilt and sentencing portions of the trial. They also offered no witnesses of their own and introduced no evidence.
The trial was overshadowed by the question of Roof’s mental health, as Roof’s own lawyers angled to introduce evidence of their client’s mental illness. Seeking to suppress such allegations, Roof sidelined his counsel and elected to serve as his own attorney during jury selection and the sentencing proceedings.
United States District Judge Richard Gergel ordered two psychiatric evaluations of Roof in the last two months and presided over two closed competency hearings, declaring Roof to be competent to stand trial after the conclusion of each one. Gergel has promised to release the details of these hearings sometime soon following the delivery of Roof’s verdict.
Yet from the government’s perspective, there was no excuse for Roof’s actions. Because of Roof, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson on Tuesday, Charleston lost nine “pillars of the community.”
“They welcomed the defendant with a kind word, a Bible, a handout and a chair right beside Reverend Pinckney,” said Richardson during a nearly two-hour closing statement. “(But) they learned through the sound of gunfire that the defendant did not come to learn… but he came with a hateful heart and a Glock .45.”
If the killings were not despicable enough, Richardson argued, the crime was made worse by Roof’s lack of shame. The federal prosecutor then referenced last week’s testimony by an FBI agent in which it was revealed that Roof has been wearing shoes to court that he has inked with racist symbols.
“Not one tear did he shed for those that he killed,” said Richardson, next referencing two survivors of the shooting. “Unrepentant. No remorse. And even last week as he had sat through and listened to the pain of Miss Felicia, the fear and angst of Miss Polly… even after he had listened to all of that and he understood what he had done. Even last week he walked into court in front of these victims, wearing those shoes, unrepentant, no remorse, it was worth it to him.”
Richardson also focused on Roof’s thorough preparation for the killings, mentioning how Roof become obsessed with race relations following the shooting of the black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and became deeply familiar with white supremacist websites and philosophy.
“He spent years acquiring this deep hatred, this hatred each of us would like to believe could not possibly exist in someone,” said Richardson.
As early as December 2014 Roof was proved to have driven by the church in downtown Charleston, one of a half dozen visits he would make to Emanuel A.M.E. Church in the seven months preceding the shooting.
“He chose the church because it was and is the heart and soul of the community… a place where you could bring your daughter or granddaughter and feel safe and comfortable,” said Richardson. “He chose that place because he thought it would make the biggest wave. It would make the biggest impact. That’s why he targeted that church and targeted the Bible study that night.”
In those same months Roof bought a gun and extra ammunition and began to film himself engage in target practice.
“He wanted to see what he would look like as he stood over [the victims] executing them. He wanted to know what they’d see,” said Richardson. “That was part of his mental preparation.”
Detailing the lives of each of the nine shooting victims, Richardson described each of their losses as “heavy.”
“The truth is that the aggravating aspects of this cold, calculated, malicious killing, those aspects of this case demand the death penalty,” said Richardson.
Following the sentence, Roof asked for new lawyers so he could move for a retrial, but Judge Gergel told him to think about it overnight and provide specific reasons for new counsel if his mind is unchanged. Gergel said he thinks Roof's counsel was sufficient.
After the verdict, the Roof family released a statement that said: “We will always love Dylann. We will struggle as long as we live to understand why he committed this horrible attack, which caused so much pain to so many good people. We wish to express the grief we feel for the victims of his crimes, and our sympathy to the many families he has hurt. We continue to pray for the Emanuel AME families and the Charleston community.”
Then a brother to shooting victim Cynthia Hurd, Melvin Graham, addressed the media, announcing, “Today we have justice for my sister.”
Graham said he was pleased with Roof, whom he likened to a terrorist, receiving the death penalty.
“This wasn’t a killing, it was an execution that he admitted to and he was proud of it,” said Graham. “He believed the lies he’s been told about African Americans forever.”
Graham said the verdict sends a message to others with hatred in their hearts.
“This community stood up and spoke loud and clear for the Emanuel Nine,” Graham continued. “I wish that that feeling… that love we show for each other… will continue.
“I just want this to stop,” Graham said. “Every time I hear about a shooting I cry.”
Roof will be formally sentenced to death by Judge Gergel on Wednesday.