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.”